A group of citizens that fought to keep the county's $260-million tobacco settlement out of the hands of private hospitals is learning that such activism may come at a price. The attorney who promised to represent them pro bono could end up costing the six county residents who led the Coalition Against Measure O about $37,000.
When Santa Monica lawyer Fred Woocher agreed to represent the coalition earlier this year, members jumped at the offer. They were a small group with little money, and he was an expert on ballot initiatives.
All Woocher wanted in return was a guarantee that the coalition would support him if he found a way to go after the other side for legal fees.
A Superior Court judge had ruled in his favor on some arguments over ballot statements before the November election. After Measure O was defeated, he notified officials for the opposition, Community Memorial Hospital, that he would seek $35,263 based on his courtroom work.
The problem is, the judge had also ruled in favor of the private hospital on a couple of points in the preelection litigation. If Woocher was determined to go after Community Memorial's money, the hospital's lawyers felt they had to reciprocate.
They filed papers seeking $36,934 from coalition chairman David Maron and members Deborah Weeks, Lillian Goldstein, Chris Mahon, Martina Melero and Chris Landon.
A hearing is set for mid-January.
"Apparently, Community Memorial Hospital is trying to send what I'd characterize as a chilling message: Be careful when you take on a powerful hospital and law firm," Maron said Wednesday.
But hospital spokesman Mark Barnhill said coalition members have no one to blame but Woocher and themselves.
"The fact is, CMH would not have done anything had it not been forced to do so by their lawyer's action," Barnhill said. He also noted that the hospital's lawyers have agreed to drop their bid for fees if Woocher drops his.
"CMH has no interest in going after anyone for fees, but in preserving its rights in a defensive way," he said. "If they want to pick a fight, or argue that they have for some reason a right to this money, then they're not in a position to complain about CMH defending its rights. They can't have it both ways."
Hospital lawyers went to county Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford for help. He agreed to talk to Maron's group as an intermediary. Hufford said the coalition wouldn't budge.
"I'm absolutely concerned when volunteers are put at personal risk," Hufford said. "These folks should be concerned. But who started it is the issue. There was no chilling effect until [Woocher and the coalition] started it."
Woocher was out of town and could not be reached for comment. Harrison Pollak, an associate with the firm, said Woocher has examined state law and believes his bid for fees will hold up in court while the opposing side's will not.
Part of his reasoning is that Maron's group had no direct financial stake in Measure O, whereas the opposing side stood to gain a portion of $260 million--a distinction recognized by state law.
Maron said if he and fellow coalition members are forced to pay the hospital's lawyers, they will have to live with that. They made Woocher a promise they feel obliged to keep.
"We're grateful to him," he said.