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Board settles on way to disclose its settlements

The public will be able to get case summaries for nearly all claims and suits against the county.

September 19, 2007|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County supervisors expanded public access to information about their legal settlements Tuesday, unanimously voting to create public documents about most of the sensitive and high-profile lawsuits they resolve behind closed doors.

The decision caps several months of largely behind-the-scenes wrangling between the supervisors and county attorneys over how much information should be disclosed to the public about legal settlements, which cost county taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

Earlier this year, county lawyers quietly stopped publicly releasing memos they sent to supervisors when advising them to settle major cases. The Board of Supervisors later reversed that decision.

The memos are drafted only in cases where the board votes in public to settle. But Tuesday's action requires county lawyers to also draft case summaries for the public involving all legal claims and lawsuits, including those that supervisors settle during the closed board meetings they conduct only when discussing legal or personnel matters.

In recent months, such settlements have included a $1-million payout to the relatives of a mentally ill inmate beaten to death by inmates in county jail and a $450,000 settlement of a wrongful termination claim brought by the county's former cost litigation manager.

"I think the public has a right to know," said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who proposed expanding public access. "After all, it is the public's money that we're utilizing to pay all of these liability claims."

Under the new policy, the public will not get the same memos sent to the Board of Supervisors but will receive summaries about the circumstances that led to the legal claim plus details about the settlement terms.

In a compromise with county lawyers, the public documents will not include the county's legal strategy or how much county lawyers believe plaintiffs could win if a case went to trial.

Molina described the policy as a good compromise that provides the public with valuable information about how its money is spent while protecting county taxpayers from paying too much to settle cases.

While most settlements will be accompanied by a case summary, County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. said some will be exempt. He said state and federal laws sometime limit information that can be released in cases involving employees, such as peace officers, and foster children and medical malpractice claims.

"Our starting premise will be they're public and then we'll see if there's some reason we feel the county would be violating the law or creating a liability to put the information out rather than the other way around," Fortner said. "That was clearly the message from the board, which we intend to honor fully."

County attorneys had argued that settlement memos should not be made public because they are attorney-client communications that disclose legal strategies.

They noted that other government agencies do not release their memos and said plaintiffs attorneys have used the documents to try to extract more money in similar cases.

In July, The Times reported that county attorneys had stopped releasing memos sent to the board about the settlements. Supervisors reacted by complaining they had never been informed about the policy change.

While most case summaries will be released before the board's vote, the new policy calls for records involving cases resolved during closed session meetings to be released after a judge approves the settlement.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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