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Vernon Fights to Keep Records Private

Officials of the tiny city are opposing the district attorney's attempt to review once-public documents as part of a corruption probe.

April 26, 2006|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

The city of Vernon has launched an aggressive court fight to prevent prosecutors from reviewing city records as part of a criminal investigation into allegations of public corruption.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's public integrity unit collected boxes of documents nearly a year ago during searches at Vernon City Hall and homes of City Council members.

But since then, many of the documents have remained sealed in a Los Angeles courtroom as Vernon battles to keep prosecutors from reviewing them.

The city, which has 91 residents, argues in court papers that the documents are subject to attorney-client privilege and off-limits to the district attorney.

A Superior Court judge and the state Court of Appeal have ruled that the vast majority of the documents should be unsealed. But the small industrial town south of downtown Los Angeles has now asked the California Supreme Court to intervene on its behalf, further delaying the district attorney's investigation.

"The longer they fight this in court," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman, who is in charge of the investigation, "the longer it takes the D.A. to seize the evidence and close the case if there's nothing there."

Attorneys for the city of Vernon did not return calls seeking comment.

Prosecutors said they approached city leaders last year, saying they were investigating whether current or former employees misused public funds. Investigators are focusing on former City Administrator Bruce V. Malkenhorst Sr.

But instead of cooperating, Huntsman said Vernon has stymied the criminal investigation. In court papers filed by prosecutors, district attorney's office investigator Carlos Villamayor said documents that should have been on file at City Hall, including petty cash records and credit card bills, were either missing or destroyed.

"In a situation in which the city is the alleged victim of a crime, you would think the elected officials in that city would want

The court battle comes as Vernon is also involved in legal wrangling over its April election, the first in the city in a quarter century. City Clerk Bruce Malkenhorst Jr., the city administrator's son, has refused to count the ballots until three court challenges are settled. The April 11 vote came after a wild campaign in which Vernon kicked the challengers out of the city and had private investigators follow them around.

The legal wrangling involves documents that then-City Atty. Eduardo Olivo presented to the Vernon City Council in 2004.

According to court records, Olivo compiled an 85-page report, along with 35 numbered exhibits, titled, "City of Vernon Legal Counsel's Office Report on City Administrator's Misappropriation of Public Funds Through the Misuse of the City Petty Cash and Credit Card Process."

Olivo included 1,700 pages of city records in four bound volumes.

In court, the city's lawyers have argued that all of the documents, including the preexisting city records, are protected by attorney-client privilege.

Prosecutors responded that Vernon was trying to transform public records into "privileged documents." They also argued that Olivo was not acting under the direction of city officials when he compiled them.

"Olivo wrote his report in the capacity as an investigator or auditor who had independently uncovered a crime against the city of Vernon," prosecutors argued.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor late last year sided with prosecutors, who argued that the four bound volumes were public records. Pastor agreed with the city that Olivo's 85-page report and the attached exhibits were protected by attorney-client privilege.

But the city contended that the judge should have sealed all of the records, saying that the law "protect[s] a client's right to refuse to identify or disclose which otherwise public documents were sent to the client by their attorney."

In documents submitted to the Court of Appeal, the city's attorneys said Vernon would be "irremediably harmed" if the records were unsealed.

That court, however, quickly denied the city's request.

Vernon has also questioned Olivo's motivations.

According to copies of a Sept. 15, 2004, council agenda, Mayor Leonis C. Malburg called Olivo's critical report the work of a disgruntled employee. Olivo was immediately fired. The ex-city attorney and the city have been locked in litigation ever since.

More recently, city officials have argued in court documents that Olivo was involved in backing candidates challenging the City Council incumbents, some of whom have been in office for 50 years. The city has said the candidates are part of an effort by Albert Robles, the former South Gate city treasurer convicted of corruption, to take over Vernon.

Olivo declined to comment Tuesday.

Legal experts said they find it unusual for a city to go to such lengths to keep public records sealed, given the district attorney's authority to get access to documents. Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said the city did not appear to have legal standing to seal public records.

"The natural inference is that they're incriminating documents," he said. "It would seem they wouldn't be litigating so aggressively unless they had something to lose."

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