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Supervisors OK an inquiry into counsel

After a heated debate, the county board agrees on a limited in-house probe of allegations its top lawyer misreported legal expenses.

October 25, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

After heated debate, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an investigation Tuesday into allegations that the county's top lawyer misreported legal expenses paid by taxpayers.

The allegations were made in a confidential letter to the board from former litigation cost manager Robert E. Nagle, who was fired earlier this month by County Counsel Ray Fortner.

Nagle accused Fortner's office of delaying the reporting of litigation costs to the board and manipulating numbers.

Fortner rebutted the allegations in a letter that supervisors debated Tuesday, but at the board meeting he did not publicly explain why Nagle was fired.

In the 27-page letter submitted to supervisors and obtained by The Times, however, Fortner described Nagle as "incapable of performing" his duties, which included compiling county lawsuit data and monitoring cases. Fortner characterized Nagle's reports as rife with "mathematical and factual errors, internal inconsistencies and, frankly, what I can only conclude to be intentional manipulations of the data."

"I do not have the faith, trust or confidence in him necessary to [have] a positive, productive and fruitful working relationship," Fortner wrote.

As for the impending investigation of his office, Fortner later said, "My files are fully open. I want to cooperate completely."

During their discussion, board members clashed sharply, often raising their voices and interrupting one another over how to respond to the two conflicting accounts of business among county lawyers.

A motion by Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mike Antonovich called for an independent investigator to look into Nagle's claims.

"These are serious allegations that have been made," Molina said. "We need to bring back integrity and trust" to the office with an impartial investigation. "Blind confidence is a huge mistake."

Antonovich said, "Having a fair, objective entity do the review, make an analysis ... helps the office and the board function in a responsible manner."

But Supervisors Don Knabe and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke argued for an internal investigation by the county's auditor-controller.

"I just want someone to look with another set of eyes than mine," Knabe said.

The board eventually achieved consensus: directing Auditor-Controller J. Tyler McCauley to conduct an investigation but limiting it to the accuracy of the county counsel's mathematical record-keeping of lawsuit costs. McCauley is scheduled to report his findings to the board in 30 days.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky initially opposed an investigation of any kind, arguing that Fortner's detailed letter debunked Nagle's claims, which he dismissed as "sour grapes."

Yaroslavsky also accused Molina and Antonovich of hastily judging Fortner.

"This thing has been a kangaroo court from Day One," he charged.

The supervisor also argued that board members "do not have a right to try to meddle" in the personnel decisions of department heads, although Burke said Fortner should have notified supervisors of problems before firing Nagle.

"I have a lot of confidence in this county counsel," Yaroslavsky said of Fortner.

Several board members denounced the leaking of Nagle's letter to the media, which Fortner later labeled "a distraction."

Nagle vigorously disputed accusations that he leaked the letter.

"Under no circumstances did I take any steps to have my letter to the board made public," Nagle said, adding that he is unfamiliar with the contents of Fortner's letter to the supervisors about his firing.

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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