Cunliffe’s Lawyer Calls for Halt to Reiner Probe
Sylvia Cunliffe’s lawyer charged Thursday that it is a conflict of interest for Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner to investigate criminal accusations against his client because Reiner was Los Angeles city attorney at the same time she was a city department head.
Defense attorney Mark Beck said that as a result, he has demanded that Reiner halt his ongoing criminal probe into whether Cunliffe acted illegally in using sensitive arrest records to discredit a “whistle blower” in her General Services Department.
Reiner’s office has been studying Beck’s challenge for more than a week. If Reiner agrees to disqualify himself, the months-long Cunliffe investigation could be referred to Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp’s office.
Cunliffe, 54, reached a settlement Wednesday with the Los Angeles City Council allowing her to retire from her city post. But that agreement did not shield her from possible criminal prosecution.
In addition to seeking Reiner’s disqualification on grounds that as city attorney he headed an office that advised Cunliffe, Beck said a second prong of his attack focuses on Reiner’s use of material forwarded from current City Atty. James K. Hahn to aid the district attorney’s probe. Beck explained that Hahn’s office also advised Cunliffe and therefore a second conflict existed, involving a violation of attorney-client confidentiality.
Beck’s move against Reiner followed a recent meeting with prosecutors over the scope of the Cunliffe investigation.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Healey said Reiner himself ordered Beck’s challenge to be reviewed. Healey added that until Reiner decides whether to disqualify himself, there will be no decision on whether to prosecute Cunliffe.
But Healey indicated that at first blush, he doubts that any conflicts exist. He explained that Reiner left his city office in 1984, after being elected district attorney, long before Cunliffe engaged in some of her questionable activities. He added that most evidence against Cunliffe came from the district attorney’s own investigation, not from anything the current city attorney provided.
A Reiner spokesman said the district attorney himself would have no immediate comment.
For several months, prosecutors have been investigating whether Cunliffe illegally possessed sensitive arrest records and then illegally disclosed them to others. The main allegations surround her release of such records to Mayor Tom Bradley and members of the Los Angeles City Council in order to discredit Robert O’Neill, a departmental critic. Her handling of O’Neill’s records was a key element in Bradley’s decision to seek Cunliffe’s ouster.
Included in the Cunliffe settlement was her agreement to drop various legal actions against the city.
One of the dismissed lawsuits includes a legal challenge nearly identical to Beck’s. Other Cunliffe lawyers had argued that because Hahn’s office had advised the former general manager, materials gathered by Hahn could not be used in the move to fire Cunliffe. With the retirement agreement, that lawsuit challenge is now moot.
Throughout the period Bradley and the council were arguing Cunliffe’s fate, the district attorney’s Special Investigation Division began an independent probe of her actions. While the investigation focuses primarily on the O’Neill charges, others are being reviewed as well, Healey said.
Beck said Thursday that his conflict-of-interest challenge mirrors “on all fours” a May, 1984, Superior Court ruling that then-City Atty. Reiner should not have turned evidence over to the county grand jury, which was then investigating former city Planning Director Calvin Hamilton. Hamilton was accused of misusing his city staff to promote a now-defunct tourism firm that Hamilton started.
Then-Superior Court Judge Ronald M. George accused Reiner of unprofessional conduct and of violating Hamilton’s confidential attorney-client relationship by referring the information to the grand jury. The Hamilton matter eventually was referred to Van de Kamp, whose office declined to prosecute.
Beck would not say whether Reiner himself advised Cunliffe while city attorney, but he said that at least Reiner’s city attorney staff did.
“It is very difficult to build what we call a ‘Chinese wall’ between conflict-infected counsel and those in the office who might not have a conflict,” Beck said.
Saying that he believes Reiner will disqualify himself, Beck added: “Then if they wanted to, they could refer (the case) to the attorney general. The fact that it is only a misdemeanor they are looking at, it’s anybody’s guess whether the (attorney general) would give it the time of day.”
Beck said that even if the attorney general did accept the case, a conflict would still exist if information from Hahn’s office was used as evidence in any subsequent probe.
Healey, asked if he had even contacted Van de Kamp’s office about possibly taking over the case, responded, “No . . . which gives you some clue to how valid (Beck’s challenge) is.”
Healey also disputed Beck’s claim that the Cunliffe case is identical in nature to the Hamilton conflict issue.
“It overstates the matter seriously to say it’s on ‘all fours,’ ” Healey said. “Hamilton went to one of (Reiner’s) subordinates and asked about the specific (tourism) case.”
With Cunliffe, Healey added, the O’Neill incident occurred years after Reiner left the city attorney’s office.