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Prosecutor sought law firm job for nephew, documents show

Files made public in a court case show an attorney with the L.A. County district attorney's office sent emails to a law firm representing potential witnesses in a conflict-of-interest case that she is handling.

June 08, 2011|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • A legal expert says the actions of Deputy Dist. Atty. Juliet Schmidt, standing next to easel, raises troubling conflict-of-interest issues. Schmidt, of the Public Integrity Division, was present when the indictment of eight Bell city officials was announced last year.
A legal expert says the actions of Deputy Dist. Atty. Juliet Schmidt, standing… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

A Los Angeles County prosecutor sought a job last month for her nephew from a law firm representing potential witnesses in a conflict-of-interest case she was handling, an action that legal experts criticized.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Juliet Schmidt, a member of the district attorney's Public Integrity Division, sent an email to the firm offering to provide case law information "that might exonerate" its clients in a malpractice claim before mentioning that her nephew was graduating from Pepperdine Law School.

Document: Karen Christiansen lawsuit

"I spoke to him and he is very interested in legal malpractice and would love the opportunity to join your firm," Schmidt wrote on May 17. "Please let me know if there is a possibility that he could get hired by your firm."

Two experts on legal ethics reviewed the email at the request of The Times and said Schmidt used poor judgment in seeking a personal favor from the law firm.

Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, said Schmidt may not have violated any laws but that prosecutors must keep personal interests separate from their work on individual cases.

"It raises troubling conflict-of-interest issues," said Levenson, who has written about prosecutorial ethics. "Prosecutors should focus on pursuing their case, not helping other parties, especially if they're doing that to help their own family members."

Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford University's law school, noted that Schmidt's motives were unclear from the email. But he said someone reading the email might conclude that she was offering valuable information to the law firm in exchange for a possible job for her nephew.

"It just strikes me as unbelievably foolish," he said.

Schmidt declined to comment on why she sent the email.

"I understand the appearance these circumstances suggest. However, it was never my intention to in any way compromise the integrity of this case," she said. She declined to comment further.

Schmidt is one of two prosecutors handling the criminal case against Karen Christiansen, a former Beverly Hills Unified School District contractor. Last week, Christiansen filed a lawsuit that asked a judge to order the disclosure of communications between the school district and its former lawyers. The email — as well as another from Schmidt — were included in the suit.

David Demerjian, the head of the Public Integrity Division, said he was aware of the emails but declined further comment, saying that it was a personnel matter.

Christiansen's lawyers declined to comment on Schmidt's emails.

The Public Integrity Division has won praise for its prosecution of public corruption over the last decade, earning convictions of elected and other government officials. Among the cases that Schmidt has handled was the successful conflict-of-interest prosecution last year of then-Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn.

Christiansen is facing several conflict-of-interest charges, including an accusation that she aggressively encouraged the school district to borrow millions of dollars for construction while also negotiating a contract that gave her a percentage of that money to oversee the construction. She has pleaded not guilty.

A law firm hired by the school district — Orbach, Huff and Suarez — reviewed the contract before it was approved by the district's school board. According to last week's lawsuit, Orbach, Huff and Suarez hired the law firm of Klinedinst, which specializes in malpractice litigation, to defend it against a possible lawsuit by the Beverly Hills school district.

Schmidt sent her emails to attorneys at Klinedinst from her personal Gmail account. She introduced herself as the prosecutor handling the Christiansen case and signed her first email as a deputy district attorney with the Public Integrity Division.

Heather Linn Rosing, a Klinedinst attorney, said that the email from Schmidt was unsolicited and that her firm never considered Schmidt's nephew for a job.

Document: Karen Christiansen lawsuit

"We were very surprised that she sought a job for her nephew from the law firm that is engaged to represent potential witnesses in her criminal case," Rosing said.

In a subsequent email to Rosing, Schmidt provided the name of a state Supreme Court case involving an attorney's bad advice in a conflict-of-interest case. She also briefly discussed the Beverly Hills Unified School District case before writing: "Please do not let BHUSD know that I am communicating with you, because they are my victim in the criminal case."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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