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Just What Did We Pay For? : The high cost of defending Nate Holden

February 27, 1996

It's bad enough that taxpayers got stuck with Councilman Nate Holden's $1.3-million legal bills stemming from two sexual harassment suits. Now, an independent review of those bills for the Los Angeles Times indicates that tighter city oversight could have shaved a goodly number of dollars off that hefty amount.

City attorneys couldn't defend the councilman because of a conflict--the city was also being sued. So the city had to turn to private attorneys, but it should have set some financial limits.

Taxpayers, who would rather see their hard-earned dollars spent on more cops, wound up picking up this messy tab after attorneys for Holden successfully argued that the councilman was conducting official business even when he was meeting an assistant at night at his Marina del Rey condo (which is not located within his 10th District--but that's another controversy.)

It wasn't uncommon for the outside lawyers to work around the clock, apparently. One associate billed 21 hours during one day on the case. According to his supervisors, he pulled an all-nighter. Too bad that these taxpayer dollars weren't spent on figuring out how Los Angeles could improve its police crime lab, run after-school programs at more schools or pay for any number of budget items that would improve the quality of life for everyone.

Another legal expense that raised questions for The Times' experts was a $3,139.66 charge for after-hours air conditioning. And then there was the matter of a bill for 12.1 hours of phone calls in one month when phone records documented only 6.7 hours of calls. These items require official scrutiny.

In the future, city officials must set a budget and spending guidelines for outside attorneys, and the limit should be somewhere beneath the sky. Tighter management of cases and an audit of all legal bills are also necessary safeguards of the public coffers.

The lawyers involved in the Holden case argue that taxpayers got what they paid for because the lawyers won the nonjury trial and the second case was dismissed. The Times' review, however, makes it clear that taxpayers may have paid too much for what they got.

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