candidates for LA city attorney address corruption at the city attorney's office
the DWP issue finally comes up in a race for office
Recently six candidates for Los Angeles City Attorney—the head lawyer for the largest municipal law firm in America—got together for a debate hosted by Knock LA and Spectrum News 1’s Kate Cagle.
You know it’s going pretty bad for a city when the U.S. Attorney’s Office has to step in and prosecute...the city attorney’s office, as it did beginning almost three years ago. Los Angeles has been eating itself for decades, but since the political tidal wave of 2020, the very existential purpose of the city attorney—what it stands for now, and what kinds of cases it should and shouldn’t pursue—is up in the air.
Kevin James, the former president of the board of public works, told me, “The city attorney race is the most important race on the ballot because of homelessness.”
Between everyone piling on one-man gentrification machine Rick Caruso and the media’s reluctance to say Karen Bass has done anything wrong ever, one topic that hasn’t come up in debates is the messy DWP saga. I get it—it’s hard to talk about in a format that relies on soundbites, and really easy to make audiences feel high the more you try to explain it. The city did a bad thing? How many lawsuits?
The closest candidate to making it an issue was Caruso, who knew all he had to do is mention the word “FBI” in order to get people’s attention. But he didn’t get deep, and Feuer was ready. After saying, “Well I’m glad you brought that up,” Feuer resorted to his practiced line of saying, “I found the evidence” of attorney collusion. That’s very misleading, and those reporters need to take him to task on it. Someone, please, let me into the next debate; I promise it will make great t.v.
Anyway, that’s why it was kinda cool when the candidates for city attorney addressed the corruption that came out of the city attorney’s office. I threw in one question about whether as city attorney, the candidates would hire private lawyers in cases like the DWP billing case.
A little context: a source of a lot of the criminal behavior in DWP was because the city hired an outside lawyer from New York, Paul Paradis, on a contingency fees basis, meaning he would only collect if the city won its case. Paradis is awaiting sentencing for taking kickbacks from the opposing attorney. There is a State Supreme Court opinion, County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court (Atlantic Richfield Co.), which says if a municipality hires private counsel on a contingent-fee basis, the municipality must be in control.
The opinion states:
Instead, retention of private counsel on a contingent-fee basis is permissible in such cases if neutral, conflict-free government attorneys retain the power to control and supervise the litigation.
That didn’t happen in DWP.
And so the city attorney candidates spoke, going right after Feuer.
“Mike Feuer is a micromanager and he knew every step of the way. I stood up and lost my job,” said Sherri Onica Valle Cole, a former deputy at the city attorney’s office.
Woa! I’ve heard the micromanager line before from other people. I believe it.
Cole went on:
“I ended up leaving the city attorney’s office after I wrote an email saying ‘I think you are abusing your power. I think you are doing things incorrectly.’”
The email was about her issues with how Feuer ran his office, not DWP in particular, according to Cole. She was fired after 16 years there, over what she said was for challenging management, and retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
Marina Torres, a former federal prosecutor who worked in the same office that has been prosecuting the DWP case, came pretty close to saying Feuer should go to jail. Emphasis mine:
“Corruption in that office is at the very top. Entitlement and a way of thinking that harbors corruption. The folks that are responsible at the top need to go to prison,” declared Torres.
James, the former president of the board of public works, said he would start an anti-corruption task force that has independent oversight. He also shouted out coverage in the LA Daily Journal, which is where I worked when I began covering this over five years ago. Thank you Kevin for recognizing who broke the story. I’m definitely voting for you now.
But maybe the only candidate to really answer the question about outside counsel during the debate was Faisal Gill, who said, “city business should be done by city employees.” He said he would “create a committee to select the outside counsel so it’s not just the city attorney selecting.”
The funniest line came from Hydee Feldstein Soto, whose campaign website said she’s become “one of the country’s most respected attorneys.” She said, “My office would have never been raided by the Department of Justice!”
Unless I missed it, we heard nothing about the issue from Richard Kim, who works for Feuer as a deputy city attorney. I reached out to him too, but no response. His campaign website says, “Richard won’t twiddle his thumbs and bemoan corruption at City Hall, he’ll create an ethics czar to wipe it out.”
Ya I am sure Richard gives his boss Feuer hell every day about the corruption that happened in their office.
After the debate, I followed up with James, who said he wanted to run for the job after getting a glimpse of how the city attorney’s office worked while he was on the public works board.
“Policy goes through city attorney’s office. I saw lots of issues around encampments. I saw the practice of the city attorney’s office settling these cases.”
James said there are too many different legal standards to help address homelessness.
“We have this constant string of litigation. Settlement begets more lawsuits. It’s better to lose the case than settle the case. Right now we have 15 different standards. Why don’t we get a court ruling so we have one?”
He declined to comment on whether he thought Feuer knew about what went on in DWP, instead speaking about some of the litigation tactics used, such as a reverse auction, in which a party settles with the lowest, least adversarial attorney.
“Yes, it is technically legal, but not good for public agencies. It breeds misconduct,” said James.
He didn’t rule out hiring outside counsel for such a case, saying it’s a case-by-case decision.
“It is cheaper to hire outside counsel if there is risk of a result, and you don’t have the resources,” said James.
Cole, meanwhile, has run for judge three times. She has worked for three different city attorneys. Under Feuer, she felt that press coverage and politics dictated many cases that he pursued. Cole said Feuer was on top of her over a relatively minor consumer fraud case against an immigration attorney.
“He was completely in a case with low seven figures,” Cole told me.
If Feuer was interested in a relatively minor misdemeanor case resulting in probation and a $2,000 fine, then how was he not in the know, like he says, about the DWP billing case, a multi-million dollar case and one of the biggest of his career?
Cole believes there is no way Feuer didn’t also apply the same scrutiny to the DWP billing cases.
“I think Mike Feuer knew and I base that on my own personal relationship with him,” said Cole.