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Inquiry into county counsel sought

Two supervisors call for an investigation into claims by fired litigation expense manager that money-saving legal measures were ignored.

October 24, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Two Los Angeles County supervisors today will call for an investigation into allegations that county lawyers withheld information about lawsuit expenses and ignored measures that could have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

The man formerly in charge of tamping down county lawsuits made the claims in a recent letter after being fired by top county attorney Ray Fortner earlier this month.

The confidential letter from former litigation cost manager Robert E. Nagle alleges that the county counsel deleted or disguised figures reporting judgments and settlements from the last fiscal year, deliberately delayed reporting information to the Board of Supervisors and directed Nagle's division to be "nice" during discussions of county lawsuits. Legal settlements paid by the county plummeted under Nagle's watch.

Nagle says senior managers want to "silence" his attempts to inform the board of litigation mismanagement: "The clear and unequivocal message to attorneys remaining with county counsel is that if you critically speak out about any problems in the way county counsel manages a litigated case, you will be retaliated against," Nagle wrote.

Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mike Antonovich have filed a motion seeking a full investigation of Nagle's claims.

Fortner said Nagle's assertions are "without factual support or merit." Although Fortner would not detail why Nagle was dismissed, he said keeping litigation costs under control is a "top priority" for the department and the now-vacant position of litigation cost manager is "very important to us; we recognize its usefulness."

Fortner is to provide the board with a written response to Nagle's letter today and said his department plans to fill Nagle's post "as quickly as we are able."

Nagle declined to comment on the allegations when contacted by The Times.

The supervisors' motion proposes hiring independent counsel to scrutinize Nagle's allegations and report back in 45 days and bars county counsel from making changes to the litigation cost manager post until then. Supervisors Don Knabe and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke plan to introduce a separate motion today suggesting that the auditor-controller conduct the investigation.

"I'm very concerned that an individual who was performing under the policy developed by the Board of Supervisors to bring accountability has now been discharged," Antonovich said. "I want to have a full disclosure as to the reasons why."

Nagle's former position was created in 2002 by Molina and Burke to monitor lawsuits, trim expenses and track county lawyers' performance. That year county settlement costs reached a high of about $63 million, county records show.

Settlement costs shrank to $26 million two years later during Nagle's tenure, according to county records, but after years of litigation cost decline, expenses shot back up to $41 million in the last fiscal year.

Senior Assistant County Counsel Steve Carnevale disputes the accounting of settlement agreements since 2004, saying that the payments from the last fiscal year are closer to $32.1 million. "I think the picture that's been painted is a little inconsistent," Carnevale said.

The move to fire Nagle took Molina's office "by complete surprise," said Deputy Chief of Staff Gerry Hertzberg, adding that board members should have been briefed on the situation beforehand.

Nagle's role had been recently reduced in a staff reorganization, Hertzberg said. Molina's current efforts are to ensure that legal cost-saving measures "aren't going to go by the wayside," Hertzberg said. "Any dollar we spend [on litigation] is a dollar that doesn't get spent on police or any of our other major needs."

susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com

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