Meet the black man who bailed out white lawyers: how Antwon Jones got sucked into a legal vortex like no other
The utility customer was overcharged and possibly defrauded by the city of LA. Now he speaks out for the first time.
Antwon Jones was totally perplexed. In 2019, an attorney who represented his opponent in a lawsuit introduced himself as Jones’ lawyer.
At that point, Jones was sitting in for a deposition over the handling of a lawsuit he filed against the city of Los Angeles for overcharged utility bills. But the man who claimed to be his lawyer, Beverly Hills plaintiff’s attorney Paul Kiesel, represented the city of Los Angeles.
“I was a million percent confused. He wasn’t there for me. He was there for the city. So when he's telling me that he’s my lawyer, I was like, ‘what?’” recalled Jones.
Jones would learn of another guy, Michael Libman, a sole practitioner from the San Fernando Valley who claimed to be Jones’ lawyer. But Jones didn’t know or has never met him, let alone hire him. And Libman made $1.6 million off Jones’ water billing settlement.
“I have no idea what he looks like. I wouldn't know if he passed me on the street,” said Jones.
Libman and Kiesel, supposedly opponents in the case, also never told the judge they they worked together.
For Jones, the Gogol-esque nightmare of bureaucratic legalese continued. What about the attorney whom Jones thought he actually hired to sue the city? Paul O. Paradis, a banal-looking personal injury attorney from New York, seemed to not exist. His name wasn’t on Jones’ lawsuit, nor was it on declarations and other court documents. But out of view, Jones would learn, Paradis was pulling strings, such as ghostwriting Jones’ lawsuit, handing it off to handpicked opposing counsel, and negotiating the settlement. But not in his best interest, Jones believed. It was in the interest of his opponent, the city of Los Angeles.
An incorrect water bill would find Jones at the center of a legal vanishing act that would suck him into the civil court system for six years and counting. After Jones filed his lawsuit, he said the city shut off his power. Eventually, the FBI came knocking. Today he is speaking out for the first time in an interview with the Debaser after filing a federal lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, arguing city lawyers, including 2022 mayoral candidate Mike Feuer, knowingly violated his civil rights by colluding with his own attorneys and covering it up. These lawyers were ghosts, straight up, who disappeared when Jones needed them most, and only materialized when it benefited them.
An Ideas Guy from New York
It started with a bill. In 2014 Jones was incorrectly charged $1,374 by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for a period a four months. Jones said his monthly bill was usually no more than $30. An actor in his 20s living in the San Fernando Valley and waiting tables, Jones said he couldn’t afford to pay. It turned out he wasn’t the only one to get a wrong bill. Over 50,000 LADWP customers got them as a result of the city going live with a new billing system that spit out wrong bills.
So he decided to sue, searching online and calling for lawyers. He remembers finding one website looking for people who wanted to file a lawsuit against DWP. He said he checked a box asking to be contacted by a lawyer. The website seemed like a government-run website, Jones recalled.
Eventually Jones said he got a call back from Paul Paradis in late 2014.
“At the same time I had called a couple of other lawyers. So I wasn't sure if Paradis was returning my phone call, or if it was from the website,” said Jones, who believes Paradis used the website to troll for clients.
Jones signed the retainer agreement, which mentioned suing a company named PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and “other defendants.” But Jones said it was always his intention to sue DWP. PwC was reference to the global consulting firm that helped DWP in the rollout of the new billing system, which spat out wrong bills. At the same time, according to court documents I read, Paradis was in talks with the city to represent it regarding the billing mishap. But according to Jones, Paradis never disclosed this to his client, amounting to a huge conflict of interest.
So the lawsuit proceeded. Behind the scenes, Paradis and his co-counsel Paul Kiesel (the Pauls) were hired on a contingency fee basis. They wanted to reroute the lawsuit and have Jones be their plaintiff in a lawsuit against PwC, and make the company pay for all the damages, according to court records. But other separate lawsuits over billing against the city were piling up. The plan, according to records, was to get the other attorneys to drop their lawsuits and have everyone join in to get damages from PwC.
According to Jones, Paradis told him he would first have to sue PwC before suing the city. Jones listened to his attorney.But the lawsuit was never filed after other attorneys for the city pointed to conflicts, and attorneys backed out of suing PwC.
So Paradis got creative: Using Jones as a plaintiff, he would draw up a new class action suing the city and settle the matter, according to court records. That way, him and the city would have total control over the lawsuit. And the settlement would be designed to eliminate the other pending lawsuits the city was facing. To them, it was a grand slam in the bottom of the 9th.
A Scheme and a Blow Up
Paradis knew he couldn’t officially be Jones’ lawyer suing the city, so he brought in two other guys. That’s where Michael Libman and Jack Landskroner came in. Paradis ghost-wrote the lawsuit, and sent it to those guys to file, according to court records.
“We are preparing the complaint for your review,” Kiesel wrote to Libman, his opponent, in a March 2015 email, copying Paradis.
A few days before Jones’ class action was filed, Paradis introduced Jones over email to Landskroner, an attorney from Ohio. The guy was introduced to Jones as someone who had similar experience with billing litigation. Jones now believes that was not true. Jones thought Landskroner was merely being added to his team of lawyers. At the time he didn’t realize that Landskroner would be replacing Paradis. After the lawsuit was filed, Paradis disappeared, Jones said. He became a ghost.
All of this, to Jones, was a bait-and-switch. And Jones believes this was done with the knowledge of City Attorney Michael Feuer, who was in charge of lawsuits involving the city.
So a $67 million settlement (it’s being disputed whether that number was sufficient) was executed without any discovery, which means, hardly any work was done by lawyers. A total of $19 million went to attorneys. A victory was touted on behalf of ratepayers…
All of this wouldn’t come to light until some four years later, when a veteran attorney for PwC, Daniel Thomasch of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, started conducting discovery. He found out that Paradis had represented both Jones and the city at the same time. During one hearing in March 2019, a judge asked Landskroner if any of the fees he received were kicked back to Paradis. He pleaded the 5th Amendment Against Self Incrimination right then. And during his own deposition, Paradis also pleaded the 5th.
In the summer of 2019, the FBI raided the offices of the city attorney, DWP and Kiesel Law, looking for evidence of bribery, extortion, and kickbacks. A day later, David Wright, the head of DWP, also pleaded the 5th and then quit his job.
During the run-up to Jones’ lawsuit, those working for the city knew it was coming, and they had a name for it: “the White Knight complaint.”
Jones, as they saw it, was going to solve the city’s litigation woes.
I asked Jones what he thought about that term. As a black man, it absolutely rubbed him the wrong way.
“When I read that,” said Jones, pausing. “It really pissed me off…because this country was built off of slaves to enrich white society. And still, in 2015, they're using me to enrich themselves crazily, and I'm still left struggling to pay my electric bill. These guys walk away with millions of dollars,” said Jones.
Jones’ settlement turned into a slush fund that grew from $14 million in attorney fees to $19 million. Landskroner made $10.3 million. Libman almost $2 million. And according to records, Landskroner and Libman billed for hours prior to their “hiring.” The Pauls were going to make almost 20% of any recovery from PwC, until they had to resign. Then there was $20 million a company controlled by Paradis got paid by the city to fix the billing issues. For about 5 minutes, the city had a good PR day. And to the lawyers, it was Jones who made it possible.
In court, it was Jones and a room full of mostly old white males. That irony was not lost on him.
“I’m the only black spec in a room full of white lawyers, and I’m the white knight? It’s just ironic to me,” said Jones.
He believes those attorneys wouldn’t have used him as a plaintiff for the lawsuit if he were white.
“I'm a young black guy who lives in a one-bedroom apartment. And they knew that I wouldn't ask questions, that I wouldn't try to do any research. They felt like I could be easily manipulated,” Jones said.
At one point, the case started to feel like a full-time job. Everything else became a side hustle.
“It was completely taking over my life. Like, when is this going to end?” said Jones.
He remembers one time when he had to come to court, through horrible LA traffic, just to answer one “yes or no” question from the judge. The question was whether he was willing to work with a new attorney. Meanwhile, other attorneys could just call in.
“I had an audition that day, and it didn’t matter. I had to come in,” said Jones, who said he came close to quitting his role as lead plaintiff for the suit.
On top of all this, Jones became worried that in the eyes of the court, he was in on it, something like a paid plaintiff.
“When I first heard I had to sit for a deposition, I was already shocked and confused. I definitely started to get a little bit afraid that they would think that I myself was a part of the whole game because of how intertwined everything was, and because I was essentially in the middle of it,” said Jones.
“For the longest time Antwon was not regarded as a victim. He was regarded as a potential co-conspirator,” said Jeffrey Isaacs of Isaacs Friedberg, Jones’ personal attorney. His attorney for the class action is now Brian Kabateck.
Isaacs said he had to essentially prove that he was innocent.
“We really had to spend a ton of time and effort changing the perception and really proving that he was the victim here,” said Isaacs.
Attorneys I’ve talked to believe Jones wasn’t complicit. And there is no allegation that he was.
As for Feuer, both Jones and Isaacs believe the city attorney knew about what happened based on what’s come out in court, the high-profile nature of the billing mess up, and Feuer’s position as top manager in that office.
Isaacs said Feuer should have referred out the matter to the state bar or the state attorney general’s office when he first claimed to have learned about the dual representation.
“If you're really serious about this you shouldn't be waiting until the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI are in your office with search warrants,” said Isaacs.
He went on: “It all smells of a classic cover up that involves the city attorney's office at the highest levels.”
Feuer and the Pauls have been in a blame game. The Pauls said Feuer knew and okayed the plan to file the Jones lawsuit against the city, while Feuer said that was not the case, that the Pauls went rogue without his knowledge. Libman said he has done nothing wrong, that he is now wrongly the subject of harassment by the court and other lawyers. Paradis is hiding in the desert, going through bankruptcy. His lawyers don’t respond to me.
Today Jones is a lot more cynical. He says his experience with the lawsuit has made him more realize power structures and power imbalances.
“You should be able to believe your doctor, you should be able to believe your lawyer. And the fact that I wasn't able to believe my lawyer definitely makes me second guess a lot of the relationships I had that I thought were solid. I have that in the back of my mind, always,” Jones said.
It’s annoying enough having to sue a city, but to do it twice, well…hopefully this time Jones will have better luck with his new attorneys. He hopes his recently filed lawsuit against LA will recoup money he and taxpayers lost from the billing fallout.
“Looking at all the other corruption that's happening in LA, and to think that I'm a part of that in some way. Do I need to look over my shoulder? How deep does it go? I have so many unanswered questions.”
The LADWP has the second largest city budget, right behind the LAPD, at $1.59 billion. Compounding the absurdity, the billing system errors were the direct result of a previous billing settlement involving LADWP. A settlement with wrongly charged customers 10 years ago called for LADWP to install a new billing system, and all it did was create a bigger problem for us to deal with.