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Ventura County

Firm Wants Out of College District Suit

Courts: Ventura lawyers in the case over alleged misuse of public money claim conflict of interest.


Citing a conflict of interest, a Ventura law firm wants to withdraw its name from a lawsuit filed on behalf of county taxpayers that claims widespread abuse of public money by the Ventura County Community College District.

In a motion filed recently in Superior Court, lawyers with Benton, Orr, Duval & Buckingham said they have a conflict because they represent Santa Paula in three cases involving its Police Department and Police Chief Bob Gonzales, a college district trustee. Gonzales is a defendant in the taxpayer lawsuit.

The issue is significant because the lawsuit contains allegations that could result in the ouster of embattled Chancellor Philip Westin, the target of criticism over his spending practices. Trustees Norman Nagel, Art Hernandez and Allan Jacobs also are defendants in the suit.

If the motion is granted, taxpayers will still be represented by co-counsel, the Quisenberry Law Firm, based in Century City, court documents state.

Lead plaintiffs Gerald Leavitt, an employee with Conejo Valley Unified School District, and Gerard Kapuscik, an information technology manager for the county, said they don't believe a conflict exists.

"There's not a legal conflict, but they [lawyers] probably see a business conflict," Kapuscik said.

Gonzales has said that as far as he is concerned, there is no conflict. He said the college district's lawyer, Jack Lipton, determined shortly after the lawsuit was filed in July that his status as police chief for the city and a trustee for the district posed no problem.

"It's a moot issue," he said.

In fact, a Superior Court judge reached a similar conclusion in January involving a different lawsuit filed against the district by the Ventura law firm. In that lawsuit, filed on behalf of four district employees, Judge Henry Walsh determined that the city of Santa Paula had been the firm's client in the past, not Gonzales as an individual.

"He was not the client with whom Benton, Orr, Duval & Buckingham had a professional relationship," Walsh said in his ruling. "The motion is denied."

What is different this time is that Gonzales is named individually as a defendant, said Mark Borrell, an attorney with the Ventura law firm. The firm is handling three cases involving the Santa Paula Police Department and Gonzales is the primary contact, lawyer Terrence Bonham said in court papers.

Borrell said the firm's partners are particularly concerned that its involvement in the taxpayer lawsuit represents an ethical violation under the State Bar of California rules of professional conduct.

"I believe that this firm's relationship with Chief Gonzales presents at least a potential conflict of interest, which requires our withdrawal from the action, in which Chief Gonzales is a defendant," Bonham said in court papers. "I understand that it is the firm's ethical obligation to avoid not only actual conflicts of interest but also the appearance of conflicts."

The class-action lawsuit alleges that college trustees, Westin and other top district administrators misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money on vacations, golf trips and illegal bidding procedures. The lawsuit was filed after it was revealed that Westin was reimbursed $119,000 for business-related expenses over four years.

A hearing on the Ventura law firm's motion to withdraw from the case is set for Oct. 17.

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