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A low-key lawyer makes millions on Vernon's dime

Attorney Eric T. Fresch wields vast power but is little known in the industrial city of Vernon.

December 17, 2010|By Kim Christensen, Hector Becerra and Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

Department heads under Fresch also benefited from the extra-hours billing system, which the city phased out in the last year. In 2009, City Atty. Jeffrey Harrison made $800,000, while Light and Power Director Donal O'Callaghan and Finance Director Roirdan Burnett were paid $785,000 and $570,000, respectively.

O'Callaghan resigned in October, shortly before he was indicted on conflict-of-interest charges related to his wife's work for the city, and Harrison left earlier this year, with a $1-million settlement. Burnett, still with the city, bristled when asked about the billings, many of which he approved. "I'm not going to answer questions that I find to be absurd," he said before hanging up.

When asked about what Fresch did to earn his large pay, City Administrator Mark Whitworth this summer defended it as a measure of the expertise needed by the city, whose 1,800 businesses employ about 55,000 people.

"When people say he is an ordinary person, he is not in the least. He's extraordinary," Whitworth said. "Eric is one of those people who we think does a wonderful job."

But he and other city officials did not respond to a request for examples of the multimillion-dollar transactions Fresch said justified his pay. Vernon's annual financial reports do reflect some large deals under Fresch's leadership, as well as some costly setbacks.

In 2006, the city issued $430 million in bonds for the purchase of 15 years' worth of prepaid natural gas for its Malburg Generating Station. It later sold the power plant and other energy-related assets for $342 million to an affiliate of Natural Gas Partners, a Texas energy-investment firm. Vernon will get the plant's output for the next 15 years at a preset price.

Vernon also waged an unsuccessful three-year effort to build a 943-megawatt power plant that was strongly opposed by neighboring cities.

In a letter to City Council members last year, Fresch listed his accomplishments as city administrator, including improvements in management structure and better communications with Wall Street. He also assured them that, in his new role as consultant, his hourly rate would not rise.

"And as always, the amount of hours I work are subject to the city's request and approval," he wrote. "Thank you for the privilege of serving this city."

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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