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In Orange County DA's race, candidates' debate is elusive

The race to be the next Orange County District Attorney is arguably one of the most important in Southern California and yet, just six weeks before the primary election, few voters have had the chance to see the two, main candidates face off. The race is being closely watched, in large part because of recent investigations into the DA’s role in the so-called jailhouse snitch scandal

The incumbent, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, was supposed to debate Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer at an event Thursday sponsored by the conservative political action committee Hispanic 100. But Rackauckas cancelled at the last minute, emailing event organizers at 10:55 p.m. Wednesday to tell them he couldn’t make it. 

Instead, he sent senior deputy district attorney Susan Price to take his place, but organizers didn’t allow it. She told KPCC that Rackauckas was out of town working on the case of the Golden State killer. A group of district attorneys from California counties gathered in Sacramento to announce Wednesday that they had identified a suspect linked to the killings of 12 people and the rape of dozens of women. 

Rackaukas' office filed charges related to four of the murders in Orange County.

“The work that he's involved in between yesterday and today is the actual work of a district attorney,” Price said before the scheduled debate. "Putting the case before politics is a priority to Tony,” she said, referring to her boss. 

Tony Rackauckas, Orange County's elected district attorney, interviews a witness during day three of the preliminary hearing into the Kelly Thomas' death Wednesday.
Joshua Sudock, Orange County Register, Pool photo
Tony Rackauckas, Orange County's elected district attorney, interviews a witness during day three of the preliminary hearing into the Kelly Thomas' death Wednesday.

Rackauckas's work on the case during the time the debate was scheduled apparently involved doing a round of media interviews, including with KPCC

Spitzer said Rackauckas could easily have caught a flight back to OC to make the event, held at the Newport Beach Country Club.

“He’s been avoiding me at all turns,” Spitzer said. 

Spitzer later said he’s debated three different surrogates for Rackauckas, including Price. Only once during this campaign season, at a March endorsement meeting held by California Impact Republicans, have Spitzer and Rackauckas shared a stage.

At the Hispanic 100 forum, Spitzer laid into Rackauckas’s record, including a judge’s decision to remove his office from prosecuting mass murderer Scott Dekraai due to false testimony and withholding of evidence by OC sheriff’s deputies. 

“If you can’t win by playing by the rules, you have no business being a prosecutor," Spitzer said. 

He alluded to other cases linked to the so-called snitch scandal. More than a dozen criminal cases in OC are thought to have been compromised by the improper use of jailhouse informants. 

The ACLU recently sued the OCDA and Sheriff’s Department over the issue, alleging that law enforcement authorities routinely violated the rights of criminal defendants. 

Speaking to KPCC prior to the scheduled debate, Price acknowledged that the DA's office made mistakes but said it has since corrected them. She said Rackauckas created a training unit in 2015 to instruct employees of the District Attorney’s office and Sheriff’s Department on defendants’ rights and proper disclosure of evidence. 

“We can’t correct the mistakes of the past, but what a leader can do is develop a path for the future so that we can mitigate the harms that might come from a lack of training,” Price said. 

At the March meeting held by California Impact Republicans, Rackauckas suggested that the judge in the Dekraai case, OC Superior Court Justice Thomas Goethals, may have been biased against him because the judge’s son was once denied a job in the DA’s office. 

“I can’t allege that’s why this happened, but that’s there,” Rackauckas said. Spitzer posted video of the statement on his campaign website. 

 California Impact Republicans endorsed Spitzer. Hispanic 100 has yet to endorse a candidate in the DA’s race.