A Bright Light on Lawyers' Bills : Regular auditing of fees to city could save L.A. taxpayers plenty

The Los Angeles City Council is considering a proposal to hire auditors to regularly scrutinize bills submitted by private lawyers. A policy of ongoing audits should provide stronger oversight of taxpayer money. A vote is expected soon.

The council has already ordered an audit of a gargantuan $1.3-million charge submitted for defending Councilman Nate Holden in two sexual harassment suits.

The public generally pays the legal bills of public servants faced with litigation during discharge of their official duties. That's appropriate. Taxpayers got stuck with Holden's bill because the city attorney's office ruled that his after-hours meeting with a female employee at his Marina del Rey home-away-from-the-district was official business. However, an audit of that bill is certainly proper.

An independent review, requested by The Times, identified several questionable charges--including one from an associate for 21 hours' work in a single day and $3,000 for after-hours air conditioning.

The attorneys' fees in the Holden case raise questions about how much the city generally spends on private lawyers brought in on cases that the city attorney's office cannot handle because of conflicts of interest or a lack of specific expertise.

A separate analysis, recommended by a City Council committee, would identify the amount the city spends, the number of hours worked by private attorneys and their average hourly rate. This information should lead to responsible spending guidelines.

The problem involved is not unique to Los Angeles. In Orange County, taxpayers are paying for the legal defense of three elected public officials who are fighting charges stemming from last year's bankruptcy.

The $50,000 cost of the Los Angeles audit would be money well-spent if it led to squeezing fat from outside attorneys' fees. The city needs every penny it can muster to provide essential services.

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