There are few politicians who have been on the receiving end of my sharp pen more often than county supervisor and former Assemblyman Todd Spitzer. If you don’t believe me, ask Todd. I’ve taken him to task repeatedly for increasing county pensions, his closeness to police unions, his citizens’ arrest of an evangelist and, well, you name it.
Yet it was with mixed feelings that I read the Orange County district attorney’s statement blasting Spitzer for his letter earlier this week calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the ongoing “snitch” scandal that has embroiled DA Tony Rackauckas’ office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. The statement certainly had a ring of truth, but it also was an ad hominem attempt to deflect criticism from the department’s troubling problems.
“It is unfortunate that Todd Spitzer is using his current position as a county supervisor to campaign for the office of the district attorney, a position he so desperately covets,” the statement explained. “Perhaps his latest political rant is intended to divert the public’s attention from the loss of his recent lawsuit regarding his self-incriminating manifesto detailing the episode in which he handcuffed an evangelist in a fast food restaurant and/or the pending litigation from a former employee outlining his ‘raging temper.’”
There’s no doubt Spitzer wants to be the next district attorney. Unfortunately, he seems to want the post too much. Ambition is a normal part of politics, but it’s best to take a few lessons from those cardinals who aspire to be pope. They position themselves to be selected, but try not to be caught in hardcore campaign mode.
Yet in making the letter all about the supervisor, the DA’s office plays politics too, and skirts over allegations raised not only by Spitzer, but by judges, a long-serving public defender, local journalists and others. The jailhouse-informant scandal was even the subject of a “60 Minutes” episode this week, which brought the matter to a national audience.
In his letter, Spitzer called on the feds to “intervene immediately in the deepening crisis.” He said “immediate action is necessary in order to prevent further damage by our elected DA and reverse eroding public confidence in our judicial system.” He pointed to three other instances of “damning evidence” involving the DA’s office (including “recent allegations by the office’s top investigator that Rackauckas quashed investigations into the political activities of his friends,” according to the Register, and two other allegations of wrongdoing).
Spitzer’s motivations are tainted by ambition, but our political system is designed to function in an adversarial way. If journalists only covered allegations by those with purity of heart, they would write a remarkably small number of stories. The tough thing is to discount the politically motivated hyperbole and still try to get at the truth.
60 Minutes interviewed a jailhouse informant who “says deputies planted snitches near high-profile targets and guided them to fish for info that might help prosecutors’ cases.” These are troubling allegations. As the TV news show explained, what he described is “unconstitutional.” Snitches are allowed to pass on info if they hear it, but they can’t be used by officials to find that information from defendants who have legal representation.
In his interview, Rackauckas denied that in a prominent murder case a snitch was placed next to the defendant in the Orange County Jail. “It was just a coincidence,” he said. He denied that his office “withheld any evidence.” As the Register reported, Rackauckas “denied the systemic misuse of jailhouse informants, although judges on the local and appellate benches have found it to be true.”
But why is Spitzer only going after the DA’s office and giving a pass to the sheriffs, who run the jail, and whose support he will need for a DA run? Spitzer says it’s because of new allegations against the DA’s office, but his critics might think my question answers itself.
Should the feds intervene? They already are investigating both departments, and Spitzer’s call for a takeover by the feds is an unrealistically big and questionable ask.
But our system is based on checks and balance, and this mess screams for outside adults to step in and sort it all out. State involvement is more appropriate, but Spitzer said the U.S. Justice Department “is already investigating and knows the snitch case.” He’s concerned the state attorney general has been “defending the DA’s conduct in the snitch hearings” and questioned whether it could be impartial.
Most citizens yawn at the allegations given that they mainly involve efforts to convict accused criminals. But the TV show got it right: “The integrity of the justice system is based on everybody following the rules.” So even though Spitzer’s aspirations must be considered, I credit him for spotlighting serious problems. Once the campaign begins, however, he can be sure I will skewer him again.
Image by Wasan Ritthawon