LOCAL

Facts sought on county's settlements

Los Angeles County has paid more than $4 million in the last two years to settle discrimination, harassment and wrongful-termination claims brought by county employees but has never publicly justified the settlements.

County supervisors, saying that taxpayers deserved to know why they settle other lawsuits, last year voted to publicly disclose legal evaluations written by county lawyers for each case. But they allowed the attorneys to make an exception for employee-related settlements.

The decision has drawn criticism from some open-government advocates, who say disclosure of all settlements is vital for the public to understand whether county supervisors and others who sign off on the payouts are doing so for the right reasons.

"This is the public's money, and if the people are not being well-served by the actions of their employment officials, the public should know that," said Richard McKee, a past president of the open-government organization CalAware and a planning commissioner for the city of La Verne.

County officials said there were several reasons why personnel-related lawsuits should be treated differently.

Chief Deputy County Counsel Donovan M. Main said the county has a duty to protect personnel records, which are confidential under state law, and to not deter employees who believe they've been the victim of discrimination or harassment from filing suit.

He said litigation ensued several years ago after county employees complained that their privacy rights had been violated when their settlement evaluations were made public.

Main said disclosure of such records could also create discord among employees in a department that is the subject of litigation, disrupting county operations that serve the public.

"It's amazing how disruptive that can be," Main said. "Personnel cases tend to be personal."

But Annelle Grajeda, interim president of SEIU 721, the union that represents about half the county's workforce, said she was unaware of any such disruptions and felt disclosure was in the best interests of the public.

"I think it's a bit sticky with personnel issues, but I think we would stand on the side of transparency for good government," Grajeda said.

Some employees said they also believed legal memos in personnel-related cases should be made public.

"It should be public because I myself, I would like to know what they are hiding from me and from other people," said Gamil Youssef, an Egyptian-born welfare worker whose lawsuit alleging racial discrimination by the county was settled for $250,000 in 2006. He said he asked unsuccessfully for the county's written explanation for why it settled the case.

"If they feel that strong about their case, why did they settle?" Youssef said. "Let us know who did what wrong."

The employee settlements represent a small fraction of the roughly $72 million the county paid to resolve lawsuits during the last two fiscal years. Those other cases stemmed from a variety of allegations, including negligence involving county-owned medical facilities and injuries or deaths suffered by inmates in county jails.

Among the largest employee-related settlements:

* $325,000 to David Canchola, a Department of Public Health worker who was written up for being chronically late and absent. Canchola contended he was the victim of disability discrimination and that he suffered from sleep disorders that he said caused him to miss work.

A private attorney hired by the county to defend the lawsuit told The Times the county did not discriminate against Canchola but opted to settle the case because managers failed to thoroughly seek medical documents to prove or refute the claim.

"So when we denied the claim at an administrative level, we didn't have the proper evidence to support it," said attorney Michael Thomas.

* $325,000 to sheriff's Deputy David Kolinski, who contended that a lieutenant repeatedly made fun of his wife's cancer treatment, made jokes saying Kolinski took Viagra and then retaliated against the deputy when he complained.

A letter in the court file written by the Sheriff's Department said an internal investigation confirmed that the lieutenant had made derogatory comments about Kolinski, saying he used Viagra, and allowed others to do so as well. A department panel recommended the lieutenant receive a five-day suspension.

* $450,000 to the county's former litigation cost manager, Robert E. Nagle, who alleged that he was wrongfully terminated by County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. while preparing a report that would have criticized Fortner's management and identified claims that were mishandled.

In a confidential memo to the Board of Supervisors that was obtained by The Times, Fortner accused Nagle of making factual errors and failing to develop policies to manage legal costs.

For more than a decade, county lawyers allowed public access to memos that explained why they were recommending that certain claims be settled rather than fought in court. The memos were written for the county's claims board, which approves settlements up to $100,000, and county supervisors, who must approve higher payouts.

But in 2005, the county counsel's office quietly blocked access in cases filed by current or former employees. County lawyers said the move was prompted by complaints from employees' attorneys who said the disclosure violated their clients' privacy.

Main said lawyers filed legal claims over the practice in two cases. He said one was settled for less than $20,000 and the other remains unresolved.

Last year, the county counsel's office broadened its policy to make the memos confidential in all cases, arguing that they are private communications between a lawyer and client.

The office's attorneys noted that the county was alone among government agencies in disclosing the records. The city of Los Angeles does not make its memos public.

But county supervisors, led by Gloria Molina, blocked the broader move. Now county attorneys draft case summaries for the public that give details about the legal claims and explain the reasons for settling.

Roxane Marquez, a spokeswoman for Molina, said the supervisor strongly believes taxpayers should know why their money is being spent to resolve litigation. But she said Molina also believes that such disclosure needs to be balanced against the privacy rights of employees.

"It needs to be approached much more delicately," Marquez said.

jack.leonard@

latimes.com

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