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Legal Fees Draw Fire

Critics question the millions of dollars spent to defend South Gate and Cudahy officials under investigation for political corruption.

November 11, 2002|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

Two of the region's poorest cities have spent millions of dollars in public funds to defend officials under investigation for political corruption, and are resisting public scrutiny of the bills.

In South Gate, legal fees in criminal cases now approach $1.5 million, 10% of the annual budget. In Cudahy, the county's second-poorest city, attorney fees have cost nearly $800,000, about half of the city's emergency reserves.

As costs mount, so do questions from critics about the legality and size of the bills.

Politicians in both cities insist that publicly financed defenses are necessary to protect themselves and their colleagues from overzealous prosecutors.

But a judge in one South Gate case has ordered the city to halt payments to one law firm after he was persuaded by residents' arguments in a lawsuit claiming that the defense payments amounted to a gift of public funds.

In another case, the same law firm, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, billed the city $613,000 for representing Treasurer Albert Robles in a grand jury investigation in which he appeared only briefly and did not testify.

The attorney at the center of the controversy, Thomas M. Brown, refused to answer questions about his firm's fees. Brown's firm has charged as much as $425 an hour for his services.

The controversy comes two years after Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley launched investigations countywide into allegations of municipal corruption.

The legal dream teams hired in South Gate and Cudahy include former federal prosecutors and a former state Supreme Court justice from some of Los Angeles' most prestigious and expensive law firms. One member of the Cudahy defense team is former Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian. A key campaign supporter of Cooley, he is a partner of Brown's at Sheppard Mullin.

City officials in South Gate refused requests from The Times for access to the billing statements, citing attorney-client privilege.

"Some of these city councils are authorizing these outrageous, obscene amounts of money for these defense attorneys ... without any basis," Cooley said. "It's just another example of their corruption."

Defense attorneys blame Cooley. They accuse his prosecutors in the public integrity unit of badgering and humiliating witnesses, and of pursuing politically motivated cases.

"The public integrity unit has no integrity," Brown said.

His co-counsel, George B. Newhouse Jr., one of eight defense lawyers in the South Gate investigations, called the prosecution "an assault on democracy in South Gate. The city will not countenance having its elected officials ousted by any means other than the ballot box."

It is common for municipalities to pay for the defense of public officials when their actions could subject city taxpayers to civil lawsuits and liability, such as in police misconduct or sexual harassment cases.

In public corruption cases, councils often follow different legal strategies, based on whether they believe that the public interest is at stake. Councils in Bell Gardens and Huntington Park have decided to let alleged wrongdoers in their cities defend themselves.

Brown has said that he plans to report Cooley to the State Bar of California for allegedly contacting some of his clients improperly. Cooley's prosecutors no longer speak with Brown without a court reporter present.

In South Gate, a working-class city of 96,000, almost every elected official has been under investigation within the last year. Brown represents Robles, the city's perceived political boss, in two cases. In one, Robles was subpoenaed as part of a grand jury investigation last year that ended with two allies pleading no contest to electoral fraud charges.

Appearing before the grand jury in December, Robles invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and did not testify. He made one other brief court appearance, and he was never charged with a crime.

Brown's firm billed South Gate for $78,000 during the month of Robles' grand jury appearance, and the fees escalated dramatically in the ensuing months. A review of one heavily edited billing statement obtained by The Times shows that Brown and his associates -- billing from $225 to $405 per hour -- worked 175 hours in March.

Prosecutors said that was after the grand jury proceedings had ended and Robles was not a suspect. The fees eventually topped more than $600,000.

Brown's bills continued to mount after Robles was charged in April with threatening to kill two state lawmakers. Robles' critics thought that the city should refuse to pay for his defense.

Under state law, a public entity is not required to provide for the defense of an employee who is charged with a crime unless the illegal act is committed within the scope of the worker's official duties.

Newhouse, Brown's co-counsel, argued that the alleged death threats, even if true, were a form of protected political speech and that Robles was acting within his duties as city treasurer when he uttered them.

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