Former top L.A. County attorney alleges misconduct by supervisors in new suit

The former top attorney for Los Angeles County has filed a second lawsuit against the county and his former clients, the Board of Supervisors, alleging that he was ousted for trying to prevent misconduct by the board.

In particular, former county counsel Mark Saladino alleged that he was targeted by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas for refusing to steer contracts to the supervisor’s political supporters and because Saladino was seen as being close to one of Ridley-Thomas’s political enemies.

Saladino, who had previously served as county treasurer and tax collector, was appointed county counsel in September 2014, with Ridley-Thomas casting the lone dissenting vote. A few months later, two of the supervisors who had voted to put Saladino in the position — Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina — retired and were replaced by Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl. The former county chief executive, William T Fujioka, who had recommended Saladino for the position, also retired. 

In June 2015, Saladino abruptly stepped down as county counsel and took a position as third in command in the Department of Treasurer and Tax Collector, which he previously headed.

In a wrongful termination lawsuit filed Friday — and a previous lawsuit filed in May seeking a court order to have him reinstated as county counsel — Saladino alleged that the county supervisors forced him out of the top attorney job and into the lower-ranking position.

In the new lawsuit, Saladino alleged that he had come into conflict with the board over his attempts to make sure they followed the state’s open meetings law and other statutes. They also clashed, Saladino alleged, over cases in which the board pressured him to represent their interests over those of other county officials, including the elected sheriff and district attorney.

Louis “Skip” Miller, a private attorney representing the county in the case, said in an emailed statement, “There is no merit to these accusations; they’re all sour grapes. The Board of Supervisors lost confidence in Mr. Saladino as its lawyer, and so decided to change counsel as any client has the right to do.”

The suit cited examples of clashes between Saladino and all five supervisors, including Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe over his “refusal to present biased legal information to other board members” in a lawsuit over the placement of a Christian cross on the county seal and with Solis and Kuehl over an attempt to direct the sheriff to exclude federal immigration agents from the county jails.

But it alleged that Ridley-Thomas, in particular, had waged a campaign against Saladino.

The suit alleges that Ridley-Thomas had “harbored ill-will toward Mr. Saladino” since 2009, when Saladino was still treasurer and tax collector. At that time, the suit alleged, Ridley-Thomas “pressured Mr. Saladino to procure professional services from a political supporter of Supervisor Ridley-Thomas who was unqualified to provide the services in question.”

Kenneth F. Spencer, an attorney representing Saladino, said the political supporter in question was Napoleon Brandford, who was a partner with the firm Siebert Brandford Shank & Co. The firm was providing underwriting services to the county at the time as a “co-manager,” he said, but was pushing for a “promotion” to the rank of senior managing underwriter, which would have meant “a large increase in his firm’s total compensation.” He said Saladino refused to promote the firm.

The complaint also alleged that Ridley-Thomas had targeted Saladino because he was supported by and had worked closely with Fujioka, with whom Ridley-Thomas “had been feuding for several years.” 

The lawsuit also claims that Saladino had refused a directive from Ridley-Thomas “to take actions which would violate his professional and ethical obligations,” after the district attorney’s office investigated the use of county resources to convert Ridley-Thomas’ garage into a home office. It did not say what those actions were.

Spencer declined to elaborate, citing attorney-client privilege between Saladino and the county.

Ridley-Thomas could not be reached for comment Monday.

Saladino argued that his ouster “reflects the Board's continued politicization over managing and administering essential county services and operations” and that managers who oppose supervisors’ actions “will be pushed aside, abused, or terminated, even if the opposition is correct or well-founded.”

In both lawsuits, Saladino argues that the board violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law, by failing to report the decision to terminate him, which was made in a closed-door meeting.

The county has argued in court filings that he was not terminated and that Saladino signed an agreement saying his transfer to the new position was voluntary and that he would not sue the county over it.

Upon stepping down as county counsel, Saladino initially kept his salary of $288,915, according to documents filed with the lawsuit, but beginning in November, it was reduced to $219,000.

According to the suit, Saladino went on disability leave in September and this month was approved for disability retirement.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Twitter: @sewella

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