Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner will be publicly reproved by the State Bar for violating rules of professional conduct while he was city attorney in what is believed to be the first such disciplinary action lodged against an elected official, Bar officials announced Monday.
The public reproval, one of the strongest forms of discipline the Bar can issue without approval from the state Supreme Court, alleges that Reiner acted in conflict with city employees' interests in two highly publicized cases in 1983 and 1984.
The Bar's review panel unanimously found that Reiner violated conflict-of-interest rules when he publicly criticized members of a secret Police Department intelligence unit and when he launched a criminal investigation against a former city planning director after the director had consulted with Reiner's office for legal advice.
Bar 'Just Plain Wrong'
Reiner, who had earlier denounced the complaints against him as politically motivated, said Monday the Bar was "just plain wrong" in its interpretation of his professional obligation to the city, but said he will not appeal the reproval to the Supreme Court because it does not impede his ability to practice law.
"They disapprove. Well, I disagree," he said. "The Bar takes its actions. They have their point of view; I have my point of view. They're just plain wrong, as far as I'm concerned . . . (but) we'll have to agree to disagree."
A public reproval is more severe than an admonition or a private reproval, other options available to the State Bar, but less stringent than suspension or disbarment, which must be ordered by the Supreme Court. A total of 33 such reprovals were issued in California last year. Reiner and his attorney, Joel N. Klevens, had initially proposed an agreement with the Bar specifying that the disciplinary action would be limited to a private reproval in which "the facts of the case (would) not be summarized for the public or legal profession."
But Pasadena attorney Clifford R. Anderson Jr., chairman of the review department, said the panel in March rejected Reiner's proposal as "insufficient" in light of the two separate incidents of misconduct under review.
Because the disciplinary action stems from a stipulation signed by Reiner and State Bar investigators, the facts of the two incidents cited are not in dispute.
The first case stems from Reiner's appearance before a City Council meeting in January, 1983, at a time when he was defending the city against a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging illegal spying on the part of the Police Department's Public Disorder Intelligence Division.
In remarks that startled council members and touched off an uproar throughout city government, Reiner charged that a clandestine band of "zealots" had been operating within the PDID unit, officers who believed that it was "completely appropriate . . . to abuse every single moral or ethical precept that's involved in what we understand is a free society."
Individual police officers who were relying on Reiner to defend them in the lawsuit moved immediately to have him removed as counsel, and a Superior Court judge ruled that Reiner's remarks had presented a "conflict of interest" that warranted his replacement.
At Reiner's request, a private law firm was hired by the city to defend the case, running up an estimated $2 million in legal fees billed to the city before the case was finally settled for $1.8 million.
The other case cited by the State Bar involved Reiner's decision to launch a criminal investigation into longtime city Planning Director Calvin S. Hamilton's involvement in promoting and financing a private tourism and foreign trade firm.
Hamilton, who has since retired, sought advice from the city attorney's office on whether his involvement violated conflict-of-interest laws, and in January, 1984, one of Reiner's deputies met with him and received detailed financial information.
Reiner subsequently announced that he planned to file a civil lawsuit against Hamilton to recover allegedly misspent city funds and to prosecute Hamilton on a misdemeanor criminal charge involving the use of his city office to promote a private firm. Reiner said he was also referring the case to the district attorney's office for possible felony prosecution.
But a judge ruled that evidence obtained during the city's inquiries could not be used in a pending grand jury investigation and denounced Reiner for using information Hamilton gave while seeking legal advice. According to the stipulation approved by the State Bar, Reiner's deputy had said nothing to warn Hamilton "that the normal benefits of an attorney-client relationship were not present."
A subsequent investigation by the state attorney general's office concluded that Hamilton had exercised questionable judgment but did not violate the law.
In a two-page written response included with the stipulation, which won final approval from members of the State Bar's review department at their meeting Thursday in San Francisco, Reiner said he was "subject to conflicting responsibilities" as city attorney and "took the actions which he believed were necessary to fulfill his obligations to the City of Los Angeles."
"The Bar simply does not recognize that a public lawyer has an obligation to the public," he said in an interview. "It's the Bar's view that I should've concealed the wrongdoing, even the illegal conduct of a city employee, and on that point we'll have to agree to disagree."
In both cases, Reiner said, his ultimate responsibility was to represent the city "as a corporate entity" above the interests of any of its individual employees, particularly when any of those employees are involved in wrongdoing.
In the PDID case, Reiner said he believed that it was in the best interests of the city to discourage continued funding of the intelligence unit, and his statements to the committee were made in that light.
In the Hamilton case, he said, "the planning director was in no sense of the word a client. It's a perversion of the whole concept of what a client is. . . . The client is the city and the public generally, and that should be abundantly clear by the fact that the city attorney is continually prosecuting city employees."
But Anderson, head of the Bar's review department, said the panel concluded that Reiner's actions constituted "improper conduct"--violating rules that prohibit accepting employment adverse to a client and representing conflicting interests.
In the Hamilton case, he said, "it was brought out under the facts that a part of his job as the city attorney was to represent individual employees of the city. He became his attorney, and when he became his attorney, it doesn't matter whether he's public or private, there's a conflict of interest."
Findings Considered Final
Members of the review panel interviewed Monday said they could recall no other instance in which the State Bar has disciplined an elected public official, such as a city attorney or district attorney.
The findings of the 15-member panel, a quasi-judicial body of 12 attorneys appointed by the State Bar's board of governors and three public members appointed by the board and the governor, are considered final, although the reproval will not be officially issued until it is signed by the presiding referee of the State Bar court later this week.