Former District Attorney Tony Rackauckas demoted his Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder, along with at least several other people, on his way out of the office in an attempt to ensure they had jobs, but Schroeder resigned Jan. 14, according to DA Todd Spitzer.
“You know, her resigning was the right decision given her role in the office. It was appropriate. They did some changes that would have tried to protect her,” Spitzer said in a telephone interview.
He said after Rackauckas lost the November election, Schroeder was placed into “a civil service protected class member of the attorney’s association. It’s a union-protected class.”
Schroeder, who was essentially demoted from executive-level staff to the fraud unit in an effort to protect her from termination, didn’t respond for comment. She was also the 2014 campaign manager for Rackauckas and at one time was considered a possible candidate to succeed him.
In her Jan. 11 resignation letter, Schroeder said she was leaving the office because “… I have recently been given a career opportunity that I simply cannot refuse. I am resigning my position as Deputy District Attorney IV, effective Monday, 1/14/2019.”
Records from the county prosecutor’s office show Schroeder took a nearly $30,000 pay cut when she was demoted. Her base pay as chief of staff was $171,024, while her base pay in the fraud unit was $142,000 yearly. According to the record, Schroeder became part of the fraud unit Dec. 17.
The usual process to become part of the fraud unit was sidestepped, Spitzer said. In order to get into the fraud unit, a prosecutor must first handle misdemeanor cases, then move onto felony cases, which was bypassed, he said.
“The only way you can get to a vertical unit, which major fraud is, is doing a large number of misdemeanor trials, then getting to the felony panel … so she bypassed the felony panel to get to a vertical unit (fraud unit). That’s not the way the office functions,” Spitzer said.
Vertical units, or vertical prosecution methods, typically means a case is assigned to a single prosecutor from start to finish.
Spitzer, echoing some of what he said during his Jan. 7 inauguration, said he wants to bring public trust back to the office.
“I’m really committed to turning this office around and bringing the trust back to this office. This office was really, really tarnished,” Spitzer said.
He also said there were some last-minute changes to various positions in the office that can make reorganization more difficult for him. He called the changes “calculated.”
“When there’s a change in the administration, the elected official, who in this case lost his election, sometimes will move people around to make it difficult for his successor. And you know, I think Susan (Schroeder) was one of those cases,” Spitzer said. “He (Rackauckas) did several demotions to put people into a protected class and he also promoted some people on the way out of office.”
He wouldn’t name the other people.
If Schroeder remained on the executive staff, Spitzer said, “I could’ve terminated her, so clearly she was put into a position where she could have some kind of argument she was protected. But the fact is, at the end of the day, that costs the taxpayers a lot of money, through litigation, or settlement.”
Schroeder tried her first felony case in 2015 and lost. In the 1990’s she worked for the Anaheim city attorney’s office and handled misdemeanor cases.
She was also reportedly going to take over the office for Rackauckas if he won the 2018 election. In a February video uploaded to Youtube from Village Television, the interviewer asked Rackauckas why he was seeking another term in office. He said he wanted the additional term to continue human trafficking and gang programs at the DAs office and “try to find somebody … pretty soon after the election who would be able to take over that job.”
According to the website Transparent California, Schroeder had a base pay of nearly $180,000 in 2017. Combined with “other pay” and benefits, her total compensation reached nearly $273,000.
In 2017, a report issued by former U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson, recommended Schroeder’s chief of staff position should be eliminated and a new public affairs division be created and she should head it.
According to Larson’s report, the chief of staff position “creates mass confusion among the rank and file [District Attorney] prosecutors and the public, an unclear hierarchy within the [DA’s Office], and allegations—whether well-founded or not—of favoritism.”
Larson was hired by Rackauckas as an “independent monitor” to review implementation of January 2016 recommendations from an expert panel on how to prevent misuse of informants. The recommendations were the result of an ongoing scandal in which jailhouse informants were illegally used and relevant evidence was not provided to defense attorneys. The panel made a similar recommendation on Schroeder’s position as Larson’s report.
Spitzer said employee morale at the district attorney’s office took a toll from the string of controversies over the years.
Confessed mass murderer Scott Dekraai didn’t receive a death sentence because of the hidden informant program run by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the DA’s office. Dekraai shot eight people to death in 2011 inside of a Seal Beach salon, including his ex-wife. Although he confessed to the killings to law enforcement and pleaded guilty in 2014, the possibility of the death sentence was taking off the table by then Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals because the Orange County Sheriff’s Department used a secret jailhouse informant to get a confession from Dekraai and the department gave the confession to the DA.
The DA’s office, under Rackauckas at the time, didn’t share the jailhouse confession with Dekraai’s defense attorney, Scott Sanders. In 2015, Goethals barred the Orange County District Attorney’s office from prosecuting Dekraai’s case because the revelation of similar other jailhouse snitch scandals surrounding other cases, causing some murder charges to get thrown out, plea deals and one man received probation for a murder plea deal.
The state Attorney General’s office, which took over the Dekraai prosecution after Goethals barred the DA, also began investigating the county prosecutor’s office in 2015 because of the jailhouse snitch scandal. The office has yet to act on the investigation or issue a report.
“I had no idea how deeply affected morale was. I can’t tell you how many prosecutors have come up to me and are so thankful about the change. It’s been mind-blowing actually,” Spitzer said. “They’ve suffered, they really suffered in the past five years or so … I’m just excited to return this office to the stature it deserves.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio