Politics

DA's office comes up short in Orange County budget

Orange County district attorney Tony Rackauckas delivers his rebuttal closing argument in the trial of two former Fullerton police officers who are facing charges related to the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man, who died after a violent 2011 confrontation with the [then] officers. The jury got the case Thursday after closing arguments ended in the five-week trial. (AP Photo/The Orange County Register, Joshua Sudock, Pool)
Orange County district attorney Tony Rackauckas delivers his rebuttal closing argument in the trial of two former Fullerton police officers who are facing charges related to the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man, who died after a violent 2011 confrontation with the [then] officers. The jury got the case Thursday after closing arguments ended in the five-week trial. (AP Photo/The Orange County Register, Joshua Sudock, Pool)
Joshua Sudock/AP

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Orange County's proposed budget released Monday doesn’t fully fund the District Attorney’s office, which has been under fire in recent months for courtroom losses and spending.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who is an elected official, has wide latitude on whether to litigate, but the county Board of Supervisors controls some of the D.A.'s budget.

Over the last few years, Rackauckas has lost some costly courtroom battles, which include defending an ordinance that banned sex offenders from parks and beaches, enforcing a gang injunction in Orange, and most recently, being kicked off the sentencing phase of a mass murder trial.

The proposed budget for the District Attorney’s office is about $1.2 million less than what the prosecutors are asking for in the upcoming fiscal year.

Orange County budget officials don’t always fund departments at 100 percent as a way to challenge department heads to come in under budget during mid-year check-ins, said Orange County Budget Director Michelle Aguirre.

“Monitor your budget throughout the year,” she said. “Don’t reduce your staffing; there’s no layoffs. Do what you can.”

Kang Schroeder, Rackauckas's Chief of Staff, said the department would "work with the county budget office to make sure public safety is ensured."

Aguirre said if the county fully funded the District Attorney’s office in the upcoming fiscal year, it would have to draw money from the reserves fund to do that. All operating costs would be paid for without having to use reserve funds in the proposed FY 2015-2016 budget.

The D.A.'s office would have come in under budget this year if it didn't have to pay a $3.9 million lawsuit settlement to the ACLU over a failed appeal on a gang injunction case, Aguirre said. It also had to pay $5.2 million, a portion of a settlement with the Orange County Attorneys Association over union contract breeches.

But because the union lawsuit dealt with employment issues and was largely out of the D.A.'s control, the O.C. Board of Supervisors last week decided to pay the $5.2 million and have the D.A. find money within its budget to absorb the ACLU settlement payment.

“The gang injunction was something related to what the District Attorney did or managed, so have them absorb that,” Aguirre said.

Rackauckas has been on the hot seat with the Orange County Board of Supervisors over the last few months for spending on a DNA database and lawsuit settlements. 

The DA’s office received $8 million in 2013 from a settlement with Toyota over recalled vehicles. Another $8 million went into a fund for gang reduction programs.

Four county supervisors, during the March budget workshop, were frustrated that none of the lawsuit winnings came back to the county's discretionary budget.

“We can’t stop the District Attorney from filing his lawsuits,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson back in March. “The power that we have is to determine what parameters that we’re going to put in place that, if you choose to invoke that power, don’t come to us for losses, if we choose to say that.”  

The Board of Supervisors haven't taken action on that, but the topic could percolate next month when hearings on the proposed budget begin.

Clarification: An earlier version identified Susan Kang Schroeder as a spokesperson for the Orange County District Attorney's office. Her official title is Chief of Staff.