Despite a vote of confidence by the City Council, City Atty. Ronald J. Einboden said he will resign June 1 because, he said, he was threatened with a lawsuit by a city councilman who Einboden said may have violated a state conflict-of-interest law.
The City Council, meeting in special executive session Tuesday evening, unanimously approved a motion endorsing Einboden's performance. But the council also authorized the city manager to seek a replacement for him in the part-time job because Einboden said he is adamant about leaving.
In a four-paragraph letter delivered Friday to the City Council, Einboden said Councilman David L. Margrave "advised me that he was going to bring a lawsuit against me and possibly the city and every other city I represent. Whether or not this threat is frivolous, it is, in my opinion, creative of an environment not conducive to a continued attorney-client relationship."
Einboden said in an interview that Margrave made his threat during a private conversation after the council meeting last week. Margrave confirmed that he talked briefly with Einboden then, but denied that he had threatened any legal action against Einboden.
"Apparently, he's just walking away from it (the controversy)," said Margrave, who joined in the vote of confidence for the attorney, "and I don't respect the man for walking away from it."
The flap grew out of a legal opinion Einboden wrote for the City Council which concluded that Margrave's votes to approve payments to his own company, Morrow & Holman Plumbing Inc., appear to have violated a state law on conflict of interest. Since Margrave's election in 1982, Morrow & Holman--the only firm used by the city for plumbing maintenance--has done more than $14,500 worth of work on public facilities.
Margrave always has acknowledged his financial interest in the firm and voted on the payments only after former City Atty. Charles Martin told him it was legal, Margrave and other city officials have said.
However, Lee Prentiss, who was elected to the council last year, raised the issue again and in March the council halted the payment of a $1,386.76 plumbing bill. Einboden was directed to ask the state Fair Political Practices Commission for an opinion on whether Margrave had breached the Political Reform Act of 1974, which is enforced by the commission. The council also instructed Einboden to render his own opinion.
The commission said that Margrave did not appear to be in violation of the Political Reform Act. But in his 14-page opinion submitted to the council last month, Einboden concluded that Margrave appears to have violated Government Code Section 1090, a conflict-of-interest law which places an "absolute prohibition" against the city doing business with a council member's firm while he is on the council.
Einboden also suggested that the city might be able to recover the $14,500 it paid Morrow and Holman during Margrave's time in office. Criminal sanctions were not outlined in the opinion, but they also could be imposed, Einboden said. Such violations are punishable by a fine up to $1,000 or by imprisonment and a ban on holding public office, Einboden said.
Meanwhile, the city has suspended its business with the company and has withheld payment of the March bill pending the outcome of a case before the state Supreme Court involving an alleged conflict of interest by an Albany, Calif., city councilman who sold property to a developer and then voted on the development.
"I'm not happy with the entire situation," Councilman Prentiss said about Einboden's resignation. "I was very pleased with Mr. Einboden and his quality of work and I think it's going to be a tremendous loss. When he made the opinion, he was our employee and we accept that, and I think the rest of the council accepts that. That's the opinion and I stand by it."
Although Margrave voted to endorse Einboden's overall performance, he has repeatedly expressed displeasure with Einboden's opinion about his plumbing business and vowed to seek a separate opinion. Margrave said he plans to ask the attorney general's office for a ruling.
Margrave said in an interview that the lawyer for his firm had advised him that the Political Reform Act supersedes the provisions of Government Code Section 1090 and, since the Fair Political Practices Commission has advised he has no conflict, that Einboden's interpretation may be flawed.
"He (Einboden) said I broke the law," Margrave said. "That's his opinion. Nothing's been done while we're waiting for the Supreme Court."
Margrave said that last week he talked briefly with Einboden and asked how a second opinion to clarify the issue might be obtained. He said Einboden broached the subject of a lawsuit. Margrave said that Einboden told him he could ask the district attorney's office or the state attorney general to review the issue. "I said I don't want to go through that expense," Margrave said, "and he said a lawsuit would have to originate somewhere."
Said Einboden in response: "I may do a lot of dumb things, but I don't invite people to file a lawsuit against me for the purposes of clarifying my opinions."
Einboden said that if Margrave proceeded with a suit, the city would be named as a defendant, because he was acting as a city official when he wrote the opinion. Einboden also serves as city attorney of Covina and does legal work for Vernon and South Gate.
"I've been in this business 17 years, and I don't have a track record of agreeing with my clients at all times," Einboden said. "That's the name of the game. But it is not my desire to practice law with those types of threats hanging over me. I found it personally and professionally repugnant that an elected official would elect to sue me."
Einboden was hired last fall to replace Charles Martin, who left after a controversy erupted over his holding office in several cities in the San Gabriel Valley. Einboden is a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Oliver, Stoever & Laskin, which has been providing legal services to the city on $1,500-a-month retainer.