Don't hide L.A. County's legal bills

L.A. County taxpayers pay the bills; why shouldn't they get to see what they're paying for?

Los Angeles County pays a lot of money to private law firms to defend against lawsuits brought by people who assert they were beaten, mistreated or abused while in custody, especially in the county's notorious jails. In order to adequately assess how well the county's sheriff and Board of Supervisors and their appointees are managing their resources, the public — taxpayers, voters and residents — need to be armed with basic information about those suits, including the legal bills that lawyers send to the county for payment.

Eric Preven is one such county resident, and he sought the invoices for a handful of cases under the California Public Records Act. When the county rejected much of his request, he and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sued. A judge ruled in Preven's favor a year ago, but in April an appeals court sided with the county, accepting its argument that billing records — indeed, anything at all that passes between a lawyer and client — are protected from disclosure.

That's an unduly expansive reading of the attorney-client privilege, which is widely understood to apply to a lawyer's advice, a client's directives and other substantive communications made in the scope of the lawyer's representation, but not to billing records of the type sought by Preven and the ACLU, cleansed of sensitive information. In the case of Los Angeles County, where voters or residents might understandably believe they are collectively the clients and ought to have access to relevant information, the privilege protects not them but their elected representatives, the Board of Supervisors.

The public should be pleased that Preven and the ACLU are not taking the ruling lying down. Last week, they petitioned the state Supreme Court to overturn the decision.

As intriguing as the legal issue is, however, it should not obscure the basic fact that the supervisors, as the client, have the authority to waive the privilege and release the documents right now — but have opted instead to fight.

It's the wrong move. County supervisors have argued that they are merely acting on advice of counsel when they withhold information. Some argue that county lawyers actually withhold information from the supervisors, supposedly in the county's best interest.

But the supervisors surely remember that their lawyers work for them and not the other way around. The supervisors, however, do work for the public. They should release to the public the bills for which the public, after all, is paying, and not wait for the state Supreme Court to act.

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