A veteran prosecutor in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office has filed a $5 million claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, alleging she is being “punished” because of her unsuccessful campaign last year to unseat Orange County Superior Court Judge Scott Steiner.
Karen Schatzle, 52, alleges in her claim that she was admonished not to run against Steiner because Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has an “unwritten policy” discouraging employees from running against incumbent judges.
In past interviews, Schatzle said she committed “career suicide” by mounting the campaign she lost on a 56.3 percent-to-43.7 percent margin last year.
Steiner was re-elected despite being censured in 2014 by the Commission on Judicial Performance, a state watchdog agency, for having sex in his chambers with two women, calling prosecutors to help get one of them a job and failing to disqualify himself from a case involving a close friend.
In retaliation for running against Steiner, Schatzle says she was transferred to a position at the West Justice Center in Westminster, which is the court furthest from her Villa Park home, and was given an assignment for which she is over-qualified while being denied other requests for promotions.
In the claim, her attorney, Joel Baruch, said she was viewed in her office as a “tough-minded law and order prosecutor with judgment” until she decided to run against Steiner.
“She was popular and considered by her employer as a `lock’ for a management position and promotion,” according to the claim, which says Schatzle was hired as a prosecutor in November 1995 and rose through the ranks until achieving the highest stature as a prosecutor before being promoted to management.
In the spring of 2015 she was promoted to a “team leader” position and was told she would be transferred to the North Justice Center in Fullerton, which was considered a stepping stone to a promotion to management, according to her claim.
A year later, she announced she would challenge Steiner. Before the announcement, she said she talked with multiple supervisors in the DA’s office about her desire to run.
“She was specifically told that DA Rackauckas did not want her to run for election against incumbent Judge Steiner, and, further, that her `career’ as a prosecutor would be damaged if she chose to run for judicial office against him,” the claim alleges.
Rackauckas endorsed Steiner in the election.
His father, William G. Steiner, a former chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, on June 1 donated $500 to Rackauckas’ re-election bid, according to campaign filings made at the end of last month. That brought his total contribution to $1,250.
After she made her announcement to run against Steiner, Schatzle was told she would not get the job at the courthouse in Fullerton, according to her claim.
Rackauckas said in a prepared statement that Schatzle’s position hasn’t changed since two years ago.
“Since 2015, (Schatzle’s) work assignment has been `team leader’ in Branch Court Operations,” Rackauckas said. “During this time, she has maintained the same job title, same salary schedule and same job duties.”
During the campaign, Schatzle posted a comment on Facebook critical of Steiner’s extramarital affairs in his chambers, drawing a rebuke from Orange County Superior Court Judge Jeff Ferguson, who was admonished by the watchdog agency in May for the social media post criticizing Schatzle.
Schatzle posted on Facebook, “Scott Steiner uses his office for sex and yet so many aren’t concerned, crazy politics!”
Ferguson replied, “Karen Shatzle (sic) has sex with defense lawyer while she is a DA on his cases and nobody cares. Interesting politics.”
Ferguson took down the response when Schatzle responded that the Commission on Judicial Performance would “love to know about your blogging!!”
Schatzle took an authorized “disability leave” from Dec. 6 through June 11, according to her claim. She says that when she returned to work, she was “denied promotions” and transfers to other jobs.
“For those promotional opportunities that Ms. Schatzle sought, she was at least as qualified and, in some cases, more qualified than the persons who received them,” according to the claim, which says her annual performance evaluations over the years have rated her as “outstanding.”
“Throughout his career as Orange County DA, Mr. Rackauckas has had the label of a district attorney who protects his friends and prosecutes his enemies,” according to the claim.
Schatzle’s filing follow claims from several other Rackauckas employees who allege they were being punished as whistleblowers.
Craig Hunter, who was in charge of the District Attorney’s Investigations Unit, claimed wrongdoing in Rackauckas’ office, including electioneering, as well as turning a blind eye to illegality from political supporters while prosecuting enemies.
Investigators Abe Santos and Tom Conklin have also made similar claims and contend they were being retaliated against for blowing the whistle on misdeeds.
–City News Service