A potential conflict of interest by the Los Angeles city attorney's office--which has given legal advice to opposing factions in the Daryl F. Gates controversy--was raised as a central legal issue Monday in the court battle over the police chief's reinstatement.
City Atty. James K. Hahn's office told the Police Commission that it had the legal authority to place Gates on leave and, within days, advised the City Council on a legal maneuver to reverse the action, documents and interviews show.
"There appears to exist ample legal authority, in both law and practice, to support the imposition of an involuntary administrative leave on the chief of police," Hahn's office advised the Police Commission in a confidential March 27 legal opinion, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
Commissioners said they relied on the city attorney's advice last Thursday when they ordered Gates to take a 60-day paid leave, pending completion of an investigation of the Rodney G. King beating.
In a closed session the next day, the council asked Hahn and several of his office's lawyers for advice on legal steps it was considering taking to reinstate Gates. One of the council's tactics--settling a lawsuit that Gates was expected to file--was approved by the council Friday.
On Monday, Gates filed the suit against the city. A Superior Court judge refused to immediately approve the settlement and instead ordered the Police Commission to return Gates to his job until an April 25 hearing.
As part of their argument against the settlement, attorneys for the commissioners and civil rights groups alleged that Hahn had a conflict of interest that should invalidate the settlement.
Hahn has a "gross, unlawful three-cornered conflict of interest, which precludes his serving either the legitimate interests of the city or the public interests," said Pete L. Haviland, an attorney for several civil rights groups trying to block the settlement. The judge postponed a ruling on the issue.
Hahn's office denied there was a conflict in its advice to the Police Commission and City Council because both panels are part of the same legal entity--the city of Los Angeles.
Assistant City Atty. Frederick Merkin said the memo obtained by The Times gave a misleading and incomplete picture of the advice given to the Police Commission. He declined to provide copies of other legal memos, citing attorney-client privilege.
Erwin Chemerinsky, USC law professor and an expert on legal ethics, said Hahn's office appeared to have a conflict of interest.
"A lawyer can't represent adverse interests in a single matter," he said, adding that "the question of how to deal with Daryl Gates at this time is a single question."
"Once (Hahn) advised the commission, he was the lawyer for the commission," Chemerinsky said. "He shouldn't be then helping the council undo what the commission did on the basis of his legal advice."
James Ham, former chairman of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s ethics committee, said the Police Commission could have a "persuasive" argument that the city attorney erred. "They have a legal basis for complaining," Ham said. "They have a conflict issue that is legitimate."
Ham and Chemerinsky said it would have been preferable for Hahn to disqualify his office from giving advice to both the commission and council.
Police Commission President Dan Garcia said he was "very upset" by the dual role of the city attorney's office. "They are selectively representing the Police Commission and the City Council at various times as they see fit," he said.
Garcia, an attorney, said the decision to place Gates on leave was based on the memorandum from the city attorney's office. He said he was advised by the city attorney's office that it would have to disqualify itself from the Gates matter because of conflicts in representing competing branches of city government. Hahn's office denies this.
Commissioner Melanie Lomax said Hahn's office "is purporting . . . to represent both parties that have competing interests. . . . He has compromised the position of both of his clients, in my opinion."
Mike Qualls, Hahn's spokesman, said the city attorney has only one client--the city of Los Angeles--and the power to settle lawsuits rests with the City Council.
Council members said they were shown legal opinions and given verbal advice by the city attorney Friday. They acknowledged that council members--and not lawyers from the city attorney's office--first suggested reinstating Gates by settling a lawsuit that Gates was threatening to file.
Council President John Ferraro said the city attorney's staff answered questions and assured council members that what they were doing was legal. "They helped draw up the motion," he said.