Friday, May 2, 2014
Grand Theft O.C. - The Ballad of Tony Rackauckas
I don't live in Orange County, but I've been there. I enjoyed a couple of trips to "The OC" after my mom passed away about 3 1/2 years ago. The beaches are nice and there is a lot to see and do. I even visited a couple of the parks while I was there on 2011. The year 2011 was a landmark year for me, as I had to rebuild my life after losing my mom and my fiancee the year before. Apparently, 2011 was a landmark year for Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas.
Tony Rackauckas has been the District Attorney for the OC since 1999. Apparently, no one has run against him in 12 years, and after rumors he wasn't even wanting to run for a fourth term, is now reportedly "eager" to run for a fifth term. And so far, it seems he'll be running unopposed again. I'd think after the debacle that has been his fourth term in office, he'd consider retirement. But I digress.
Around the time I was visiting Orange County, a debate was brewing over an idea to ban Registered Citizens from Orange County's parks (or, as the OC Register was calling it, "Pervs-in-Parks" bans). In the spring of 2011, as I was enjoying a trip to Orange County, Rackauckas and his sidekick, Susan Kang Schroeder, succeeded in persuading the county to pass a sex offender park ban. "We are setting up a safety zone by keeping parks and recreation zones safe from predators," Rackauckas said. It was good PR for the DA's office, and before long the "pervs-in-parks bans" were catching on all across the county.
It is important to note that the county ban only affected county parks, like the Orange County Zoo or Dana Point Harbor, a site I visited on one of my trips to the OC; thus, each municipality had to pass their own ordinance. The justification for pushing the ordinances was the belief that "the county ban could drive sex offenders into city parks that aren't covered by similar ordinances." This belief was classic fearmongering at its finest.
It seemed like an easy ride. After all, as Frank Zimring from UC Berkeley put it, "Who's going to lose votes being against child molestation?" Tony and Susan were touring the county (to be fair, Orange County is a huge county, about 3/4 the size of Rhode Island), singing the same ballad to woo the masses. But not everyone was responding to this tune.
The city of Irvine was reluctant to pass the ordinance. "Larry Agran noted Irvine is America's safest city, so by default it would already have America's safest parks. He feared the ban might occupy city cops who have proven they have a winning enforcement formula already. As part of the staff recommendation, Agran urged that a determination be made to whether pervs in Irvine parks is even a problem. Councilwoman Beth Krom, meanwhile, reportedly wondered whether the law would create a false sense of safety in parks." Irvine did eventually pass a ban, but it only applied to registrants with minor victims. Rackauckas was "befuddled" by the reluctance to pass an outright ban, citing the ordinance does not block "rapists, pornographers, and flashers from cruising" the parks.
In the summer of 2011, as I was taking my third trip to the OC, a terrible tragedy occurred that put a greater damper on Tony's political career. A homeless man named Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by a half-dozen Fullerton police officers. Normally, this is the kind of case that is easily swept under the rug, but in this instance, Kelly Thomas happened to be the son of a former OC sheriff's deputy. I imagine these cases are not easy for prosecutors, but Tony seemingly botched the case from the very beginning. Kelly Thomas's mother sued Rackauckas for hindering her right to examine public records relating to her son's death. Tony and his underling Susan had the choice to devote their efforts and resources into either jailing killer cops or to keep drunken mooners and teen sexters out of OC parks. The right choice should have been obvious.
While the Kelly Thomas case was making headlines across the US as an example of police brutality, Rackauckas and Schroeder continued to put their primary efforts into the sex offender park bans. Rackauckas expected someone who would be arrested under the park ban law would sue. It didn't take long for challenges to appear, and not just from a registrant arrested for visiting a park (seeing how there were so few arrests stemming from the ordinances, it should not come as a surprise). A lawsuit was filed against four OC cities in federal court, and in Novermber 2012, the appellate division of the OC Superior Court ruled the law violates the state Constitution. The city of Lake Forest, one of the four cities in the lawsuit, quickly repealed the ordinance it had just passed a few months prior to the suit.
As Tony's pet project was being defeated in the courts, the efforts to punish the six Fullerton killer cops was floundeing. Despite the involvement of six officers in the arrest and beating of Kelly Thomas, only two cops, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, were formally charged for the crime. (A third cop, Joseph Wolfe, was also charged but the DA dropped the case.) The case was a high profile case, so Tony Rackauckas decided to try the case himself, something he apparently had not done since the OC was preparing for Y2K. There is only one sport I can think of where a person who has long since retired from active rotation is thrown back into the starting lineup, and that sport is the WWE. Pro wrestlers never truly retire, they come back on occasion to help get the younger talent over.
The prosecutor's office is not the WWE. Tony should have let someone who has tried an actual case since Clinton was in office take over. It seems Tony was simply going through the motions for the sake of putting on a show for those demanding Justice for Kelly Thomas. This case should have been a home run, a fastball right over the plate. But the mighty Tony struck out. Fullerton's killer cops were acquitted despite the overwhelming evidence of police brutality. "Tony's very factual," said Ron Thomas, Kelly's father. "He takes up a lot of time with his words. I thought he lost the jury several times because of long pauses," he said. The prosecution, Thomas said, failed to quickly address attempts by defense attorneys to portray his son as a volatile drug user... You have to at least counter what the defense is doing.... We didn't do that. We didn't bring in the positive...Tony didn't sell his case." How can someone botch such a sure-win? If you have read my rant up till this point answer should be obvious.
Just a couple of days before the acquittal of the Fullerton killer cops was read, the California Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling that sex offender park bans were unconstitutional. In the midst of the Kelly Thomas murder case, Rackauckas still found the time to make a statement vowing to fight for his precious park bans all the way to the California Supreme Court. The California Supreme Court recently declined to hear the case, so the appeals court ruling stands as the highest ruling.
After Rackauckas botched the Kelly Thomas murder case, there were questions as to whether Tony's next song would be his swan song. But so far it seems Tony is still running largely opposed. If someone would oppose him, would Tony win? After all, he apparently has survived scandals in the past, such as an investigation by the OC grand jury, the firing (and lawsuit) over firing a cop investigating a wealthy contributor to Rackauckas's election campaign, the accusations of using his office to aid opponents of a political rival, flack over failing to address an assistant prosecutor's remarks comparing a Jew to Hitler, Rackauckas "misplacing" a loaded gun, and flak over aiding a corrupt political rival. However, if Tony was to win reelection, there is the chance OC could be stuck with someone even worse than Tony.
A concern among many behind the scenes at Orange County's law enforcement network is the possibility of Tony's faithful minion Susan Kang Schroeder possibly inheriting the DA position should Rackauckas decide to retire mid-term, as has been apparently rumored for years. Schroeder has been called "unprofessional" and even "satanic" by those who have dealt with her over the years. "If Susan Schroeder becomes the district attorney of Orange County, our criminal justice system will be in peril," said one veteran law enforcement official who asked to remain anonymous. "I'm serious."
I suppose Tony Rackauckas and his faithful sidekick will still push sex offender issues and try to find other ways of "protecting kids," especially now that an ex-Fullerton cop who got away with murder is teaching kids how to swing a bat. Maybe Tony can address the fact that another law he endorsed, Jessica's law, increased homelessness for registered citizens by about 2200% (that is, 22 times over) in the years since it passed.
I think the commentary from The Liberal OC is a fitting end to this ballad.
"We have to wonder if it isn’t time for Rackauckas to retire. His decision to take the lead in the prosecution of Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinell is but one example of the misguided actions of a 70 year-old-man trying to recapture the glory of his youth. His zeal in perusing a blanket ban of all sex offenders from parks, and gang injunctions that assign guilt by association to suspected gang members, only reinforces the view that Rackauckas has spent much of his recent years in office chasing headlines. We can only hope that Mr. Rackauckas doesn’t decide to throw a Hail Mary pass, and take on the prosecution of Carlos Bustamante in an attempt to reclaim his lost glory. But perhaps that is what Mr. Bustamante is praying for."
We can only hope that the Ballad of Tony Rackauckas comes to an end with Tony and Susan ousted from public office in disgrace.
Don't expect much more talk about the park bans, by the way. The OC Register is reporting that OC cities like Laguna Hills may reverse park bans under threat of litigation from Janice Bellucci/ California Reform Sex Offender Laws and the ACLU; the county has quit enforcing the park bans after the California Supreme Court denial.