Thu. Jun 6th, 2024
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer speaks during a press conference to promote tougher penalties against fentanyl dealers at the Riverside County District’s Attorney’s Office in Riverside on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer speaks during a press conference to promote tougher penalties against fentanyl dealers at the Riverside County District’s Attorney’s Office in Riverside on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Fired OC district attorney’s investigator who accused Todd Spitzer of bribery gets job back in arbitration

The county also was ordered to pay more than a year in back pay to former supervising investigator Damon Tucker

By  | | Orange County Register

A fired Orange County District Attorney’s Office investigator who accused District Attorney Todd Spitzer of “pay-to-play” schemes has won back his job in arbitration.

Former supervising investigator Damon Tucker must be reinstated, according to arbitrator Michael Leb, who concluded the firing process “was tainted. The charges were not proven, and the termination of Tucker was not for reasonable cause.”

Tucker will be paid more than a year in back pay. Transparent California, a public pay database, lists his salary and benefits in 2020 at $329,489.

“He is fully exonerated,” said attorney Neda Roshanian, who represented Tucker with lawyer Keith Bruno. Tucker’s wrongful termination lawsuit against the county will continue to proceed.

Veteran of 30 years

Tucker, a veteran of nearly 30 years, was fired in December 2020 amid allegations that he unilaterally began investigating his suspicions that Spitzer was giving preferential treatment to donors. Tucker also accused Spitzer — then newly elected — with colluding with investigation bureau chief Paul Walters to bury Tucker’s findings.

The arbitration ruling concluded that Walters, Spitzer and his top adviser, Shawn Nelson, decided to fire Tucker during in an “impromptu” meeting outside of the regular procedures of termination, Roshanian said. Spitzer has argued that the decision was made by the county’s human resources office and not himself.

The saga began in 2016 with the assignment of investigator Tom Conklin to look into the dealings of then-District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ political rival, Spitzer. Conklin later authored an 11-page report, obtained by the Orange County Register, which said he could find no wrongdoing by Spitzer. Spitzer won the election and was seated in January 2019.

Conklin was placed on administrative leave under suspicion that he had leaked the Spitzer investigation. The arbitration says Tucker was assigned before Spitzer took office to pick up Conklin’s investigation. Spitzer’s office said Tucker assigned himself.

Tucker believed Conklin had tanked his report to exonerate Spitzer, alleging the investigation was incomplete, unprofessional and unethical. For instance, Conklin missed bank records that showed Spitzer potentially laundered money, Tucker said in his ongoing lawsuit against the county.

County discarded own rules

After Spitzer’s election, Tucker assigned himself to continue his investigation into the new district attorney, say officials from the prosecutor’s office. The arbitrator, however, stressed the county did not play by its own rules.

“In its brief, the County justifies the termination by pointing to alleged bias, conflict, ethical and policy violations, and general overreaching by Tucker in pursuit of some sort of vendetta against Spitzer,” says the ruling. “The County gives not so much as a passing nod, however, to the conflicts of interest, inconsistencies, and departures from procedure on the part of the decision-makers which permeate this entire matter.”

The arbitrator went on to say Tucker never should have been assigned the investigation.

“This entire case would have been avoided if the Bureau had simply recused itself from any further investigation involving Spitzer in any way after July 10, 2017, when Spitzer announced he was running for Orange County District Attorney,” the ruling said. “Having decided not to recuse itself, the Bureau should have been especially sensitive to avoid anything that would remotely call into question anyone’s capacity to be impartial.”

Spitzer’s office released a statement alleging that Tucker’s investigation was political in nature.

“This was nothing more than political espionage immediately after Rackauckas’ dismal showing in the primary,” said Kimberly Edds, Spitzer’s spokesperson. “In the wake of Rackauckas’ dismal performance … Tucker engaged in unauthorized and self-directed activities in a desperate attempt to dig up dirt on Spitzer before the general election in November and prevent Rackauckas from being unseated.”

What job on return?

The next step is for Tucker and the county to negotiate his return.

Roshanian said the county is offering Tucker a less prestigious post than the one he had.

“He’s entitled to be where he was. He’s earned it,” she said. “The arbitrator said he did what any reasonable person would do by preserving the evidence of Spitzer’s suspected criminal conduct.”