Though one of Orange County law enforcement’s most powerful jobs was at stake, the 2010 race for district attorney didn’t produce one debate, not a single exchange of hostile campaign mail. That’s because, for the second time, incumbent District Attorney Tony Rackauckas faced no challenger. Yet, even before Rackauckas is sworn in for his next four-year term in January, the 2014 race for the job is already a bloodbath.
Count Todd Spitzer as the first casualty. On Aug. 27, the DA fired Spitzer, the now-former high-ranking prosecutor who had been presenting himself as the anointed successor to the now-67-year-old Rackauckas. The ambitious Spitzer—whose jobs have included county supervisor, state assemblyman and school-board trustee, with two stints as a local prosecutor—is crying foul.
According to Spitzer, he was canned on a “pretext” excuse in a plot to thwart his chances of replacing Rackauckas after the 2014 election. “I thought everything was going fine,” he says.
Rackauckas’ allies dismiss the notion of a conspiracy and claim Spitzer had committed a series of poor-judgment blunders—nothing illegal or immoral, but acts of arrogance that increasingly annoyed the DA. “It takes a lot to frustrate Tony,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, Rackauckas’ chief of staff. “Todd managed to pull it off. He can blame only himself.”
The mention of Schroeder’s name probably makes Spitzer clench his fists. His post-firing explanations point to a malignant power over the DA’s office: Not Rackauckas, but Schroeder and her husband, Mike, the onetime California Republican Party boss and Santa Ana chiropractic-insurance king who is Rackauckas’ closest adviser.
A clearly angry Spitzer told KFI’s Bill Handel on Aug. 31 that the Schroeders are “political operatives . . . people with very disreputable reputations.” He credited the couple with being “critical in Mike Carona’s fall from grace.” Indeed, Mike Schroeder served as top adviser to both Rackauckas and Carona before FBI and IRS agents arrested the county’s top cop for corruption in 2007.
“So while Mike Carona is on his way to state, uh, federal prison after running the sheriff’s department into the ground, these are the same people trying to run the Orange County district attorney’s office into the ground,” said Spitzer, who, like the Schroeders, is a Republican.
Weekly readers know that in the past year, I’ve written about rumors that Susan Schroeder was considering a 2014 run for DA. She has steadfastly dismissed the claim, but now Spitzer is calling her a phony. He speculates that she orchestrated his firing to enhance her own chances. “She has made it very clear she wants to be the district attorney,” Spitzer told Handel.
“He’s crazy,” Susan Schroeder fired back during a telephone interview with me from Hawaii, where she is on vacation. “He’s lost it. I’m not running for DA.”
Says her husband, “Susan has absolutely no plans to be DA, period.”
Six days into this scandal, Rackauckas declared he’ll run again in 2014. Frankly, I doubt his sincerity. It’s likely the announcement was an attempt to end the embarrassing bickering.
Despite 18 months of the awkward grooming arrangement, the DA and Spitzer couldn’t be more opposite. Rackauckas often looks like he’d be content to quietly watch paint dry. In his view, only liberals use the word “reform.” His wardrobe is bland, and his speeches are often plagued with odd silences. The natty, articulate Spitzer notoriously can neither sit still nor keep his mouth shut, and the notion of enacting bureaucratic reforms probably arouses him.
In this latest episode, Spitzer is determined to focus attention on the Schroeders. But the real story in this case isn’t the Corona del Mar power couple. Sure, they relish destroying political opponents and bask in pride when their wounded enemies call them the personification of evil. There’s nothing new here about who the Schroeders are or how they operate.
But the whole episode has showed us something none-too-pleasant about Spitzer’s character.
In October 2004, I wrote about my unannounced visit to then-Assemblyman Spitzer’s speech to a Rush Limbaugh Club. In response to a question from an audience member, he called OC’s law-enforcement community “poisoned.” He wasn’t talking about then-Sheriff Carona (who was still three years away from his federal-grand-jury indictment). He was speaking about Rackauckas—and the Schroeders.
“The people of this county want and deserve a DA who is fair, just and above reproach,” Spitzer said while hinting that he might challenge Rackauckas in the 2006 race. “We know that the DA has intervened on behalf of his friends, fouled up cases, and there’s been an ongoing issue of retaliation against deputies who haven’t politically supported Tony Rackauckas.”
Spitzer even singled out Mike Schroeder as a nefarious character with questionable ties to both the DA and sheriff.
“Let all that sink in for a minute,” he said.
In response, Susan Schroeder dismissed the remarks as evidence that Spitzer’s m.o. was “ready, fire, aim.”
Ultimately, Spitzer decided not to run, and in 2008, after running into term limits in the state assembly, he joined his old nemeses in the DA’s office. At the time, I questioned Susan Schroeder on the move, given their long animosity.
“Todd has changed,” she said then. “He’s become a Christian”—he was Jewish—“and he finally understands why so many people didn’t like him before. I’m willing to give him a second chance.”
For Spitzer, joining Rackauckas and the Schroeders wasn’t selling out to the dark side. But he no longer wanted to talk about allegedly corrupting elements that hadn’t left the DA’s office. In fact, he celebrated Susan Schroeder as a moody but decent person. “She’s a friend,” he told me last year. The Schroeders confirm that Spitzer has been a frequent, regular caller for advice, even in recent weeks.
So let’s recap Spitzer’s stances: In 2004, the Schroeders are evil folks wrecking the DA’s office, and Rackauckas is a gullible moron. In 2008, the Schroeders are wonderful people who’ve kindly helped him get a high-ranking prosecutor’s job, and Rackauckas is his trusty mentor. In 2010, he’s fired, and the Schroeders are once again satanic and the DA their moronic puppet.
I know all the parties in this affair and can safely report that Rackauckas hasn’t changed. Love them or hate them, the Schroeders haven’t changed. The only person who seems to have changed—or is continually changing—is Spitzer, which is sad because he has portrayed himself as an unblemished government reformer more than any other OC candidate for 15 years.
Perhaps Spitzer is right that the Schroeders brought him into the DA’s office to prevent him from using his $1 million campaign fund to challenge Rackauckas in 2010, and then axed him after the June election. Perhaps Susan Schroeder has already chosen the blood-red drapes she’ll hang in the office when she’s DA. But there’s no doubt Spitzer has undermined his stature.
Spitzer told KFI he’d returned to the DA’s office “with my eyes wide open,” but was it really with a self-serving wink? It looks as if he was willing to stop crying corruption in exchange for a well-paying deputy DA job. Or, alternatively, he was a crafty troublemaker who parlayed false, sensational criticisms into a well-paying deputy DA job. Whichever version is right, a question arises: How many times is Spitzer allowed to flip-flop?
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.