Counsel Says Grand Jury Was Unfair : Government: Conflict of interest allegations were the result of an ‘incomplete and misleading’ report, Harmon says of findings release five months ago.
Rebutting criticism of his office by the 1991-92 grand jury, County Counsel Lloyd Harmon accused jurors of adopting a “stealth-like attitude” in investigating his office, thus producing an “incomplete and misleading” report which unfairly impugned county attorneys.
Harmon’s response, released Wednesday, came five months after the grand jury charged the County Counsel’s office with a conflict of interest by defending county agencies the grand jury had investigated.
The County Counsel’s office is required by law to advise the grand jury in civil investigations but in every case where the jury wanted to examine a county agency, Harmon’s office was “unable to provide legal advice to the grand jury because it felt it had a pre-existing duty to another client--the agency under investigation,” jurors said.
Besides the conflict, the grand jury said, county attorneys had been “routinely obstructive” when the jury sought information, had discriminated against minority staff members and badly mishandled the case of an 8-year-old child who accused her father of rape.
In his rebuttal, Harmon said the grand jury never interviewed him before it released its report and ignored its own statutory mandate to conduct investigations in a “careful and diligent” manner.
Attempting to deflect criticism that it sought to block access to records of the Juvenile Dependency unit, which represents the Department of Social Services in Juvenile Court cases, Harmon said the jury demonstrated a “serious lack of understanding of its right to have access to Juvenile Court records.”
Jurors were entitled to the records, Harmon wrote, but his office felt it necessary to first obtain a court order making sure the records were kept confidential.
“This issue appears to have been the cause of the rupture of an otherwise long standing good relationship between the San Diego County Grand Jury and the Office of County Counsel and led to the crabbed report by the Grand Jury,” Harmon wrote.
Harmon defended his handling of the case of Alicia W., the 8-year-old who accused her father of rape. The district attorney’s office dismissed criminal charges against the father. Yet when Alicia’s family sought a motion in Juvenile Court to set aside its previous admissions of neglect so their daughter could be returned, the County Counsel’s office opposed the motion.
Although the Grand Jury foreman Richard Macfie wrote Harmon that it would be “unconscionable for San Diego County to require this family to go through further court proceedings and to spend still more money to clear their record completely,” the County Counsel’s office still objected.
The County Counsel’s office, countered Harmon, was concerned about the immediate return of Alicia to her natural parents for a number of reasons, including the bonding of Alicia to her foster parents, Alicia’s wishes to be adopted by her foster parents, Alicia’s fear of her father, the importance of Alicia’s therapy, and other factors.
“The Grand Jury’s account of the Alicia W. case overlooked the reasonable basis for the actions of the Department of Social Services, the district attorney, the County Counsel and the juvenile court in her case and the obvious issues surrounding any sudden, and possibly traumatic, return to her home,” Harmon wrote.
Harmon acknowledged that conflicts did arise last year and the County Counsel’s office recommended that the district attorney’s office or state Attorney General’s office intercede. But he said such instances are rare and maintained that the strained relationship between his office and the jury was an “aberration” that would change for the better from now on.
In its June report, the Grand Jury also faulted the County Counsel for having the lowest retention of minority employees of four public law offices, including the district attorney’s office, the state Attorney General’s office and the office of the Public Defender.
“The record of failure to promote minorities, and, and more critically, the relatively low retention rate of minorities, leads the Jury to conclude that subtle forms of prejudice exist within the office of County Counsel,” the jury wrote.
In defending his office, Harmon wrote that the county is under a 1977 consent decree that orders minorities and women hired based on “interim” and “ultimate” goals.
The county compared its hiring goals with those of the California State Bar, arguing that it must only compare with a population of those licensed to be attorneys rather than the county’s population at large.
On that basis, Harmon wrote, the county’s numbers “meet or exceed the percentages available in the qualified labor pool on a statewide basis.”
Harmon did not agree to any of the Grand Jury’s five recommendations, including its suggestion that it stop protecting county departments from scrutiny.
“The office of County Counsel has not attempted to frustrate the grand jury in carrying out its watchdog function,” Harmon wrote. “However, the grand jury itself must follow the requirements of the law. County Counsel has had an excellent working relationship with the Grand Jury in the past and anticipates that County Counsel will work successfully with the grand jury in the future.”
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