A veteran city prosecutor has filed a whistle-blower lawsuit alleging that Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo retaliated against her for complaining about the work of outside law firms hired by the city and whose partners and associates are major political supporters of Delgadillo.
Kerrin Tso, a deputy city attorney for 22 years, alleges that her promotion was blocked and that she was transferred out of an assignment representing the Department of Water and Power after she made several complaints to supervisors about politically influential outside attorneys hired by Delgadillo's office.
"She was transferred in retaliation for blowing the whistle on conflicts of interest," said Peter Scolney, one of her attorneys. "The influential position that these law firms had was a substantial factor."
Nick Velasquez, a spokesman for Delgadillo, disputed the allegations.
"This suit is meritless and an attempt by a disgruntled employee to wring millions of dollars from the city," he said. "It's clear the plaintiff is just looking for a big payday."
Tso alleges that the retaliation occurred after she told supervisors that the law firm of Cotchett, Pitre, Simon & McCarthy faced a potential conflict in representing the DWP and other clients in lawsuits against Reliant Energy Services Inc. over a contract dispute. The dispute with the DWP was over the purchase of natural gas.
She also complains that the law firm submitted an unjustified bill for limousine service and that a representative of the firm had misrepresented that she had participated in a conference call on the Reliant case, when she had not.
Tso said she later learned that Joseph Cotchett, a partner at the firm, was co-chair of Californians for Rocky, the city attorney's campaign committee for his ultimately unsuccessful run for state attorney general last year.
In 2004, Delgadillo approved a contract with the Cotchett firm to assist in a federal lawsuit against Reliant and any state action that might take place.
Cotchett was Tso's co-counsel in a related state lawsuit.
The Cotchett firm later filed separate complaints for six other clients against Reliant and then asked the court for permission to coordinate the cases, Tso's lawsuit alleges.
Tso told her bosses that by taking on other clients, Cotchett put his firm in a potential conflict of interest and that the DWP, not the other clients, should receive the bulk of any settlement.
At one point, Tso alleges, Cotchett left a voice mail for her stating that if she did not return his call immediately he was going "straight to Rocky."
On Monday, Cotchett did not return calls for comment.
City attorney spokesman Velasquez said it was Tso who recommended and recruited Cotchett in the Reliant matter.
The city attorney also hired the firm of Riordan & McKinzie for the Reliant case, the lawsuit alleges. In 2003, the firm consolidated with Bingham McCutchen. Tso's lawsuit says ex-Mayor Richard Riordan, a former law firm partner, spent $250,000 to help elect Delgadillo as city attorney in 2001.
Tso's lawsuit alleges that a representative of the Bingham firm sought her consent to represent Reliant in a federal lawsuit filed by the DWP. Tso denied the request, saying that Bingham attorneys had access to confidential information from the DWP regarding Reliant, the lawsuit alleges.
When Tso complained, she was involuntarily transferred "from being a complex civil case litigator to the job of approving/disapproving landside operation agreements and limo licenses at Los Angeles International Airport" and that the move "effectively brought the claimant's career to an abrupt end," she alleges in a claim.
Tso's supervisor said that she had done nothing wrong and that "the airport needed her," the lawsuit says.
Velasquez said Tso's transfer was one of several conducted among the city's legal departments as part of a much-needed reorganization. "There is no merit to the claim that the transfer was anything other than routine," he said.
Riordan, who left Riordan & McKinzie to serve for eight years as mayor and describes himself currently as an unpaid consultant for the firm, said Monday that he did not have any knowledge of the Reliant case or Tso.
Terry Houlihan, a partner at Bingham, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
In her claim filed with the city, Tso says she "disclosed her reasonable belief that there was a conspiracy on the part of certain high-level city officials and certain law firms to maximize profits for these law firms at the fiscal expense of the city of Los Angeles."