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L.A. County secrecy policy is assailed

Times Staff Writer

Lawyers for Los Angeles County supervisors have quietly stopped making public the memos they send when advising their bosses to settle major lawsuits, reversing one of the few county policies that won praise from open-government advocates for explaining why taxpayers pay millions of dollars each year to resolve negligence and other claims.

County lawyers said they made the decision after plaintiffs’ attorneys began using the memos to try to extract more money for separate but similar cases. The new policy, while a big departure from years of openness, is in line with how other local governments operate.

Open-government advocates decried the policy change, saying it would deprive the public of information that helps hold the county accountable for its failures as well as its legal decisions.

“If this is private, we have no idea what kind of deals they’re making on the taxpayer dime, whether or not they’re legitimate or whether or not they’re squeezing the weak or giving money to the powerful,” said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

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“Just because they may be the only ones who have been doing it right doesn’t mean they should start doing it wrong.”

But county lawyers, who made the decision about two months ago, said it would help protect taxpayers from paying more than they should to resolve lawsuits. Chief Deputy County Counsel Donovan M. Main said the memos provide too much information about the county’s legal strategy for lawyers hoping to negotiate larger sums in other cases.

“We made a determination that they are attorney-client communications, and for the county’s best interests, from a legal standpoint, they shouldn’t be made public,” Main said. “It’s nuts to do that from a legal standpoint.”

County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. said he had not briefed supervisors on the change in policy, but he believed they were aware that the memos are no longer made public.

“I can understand how people of all stripes would be interested in what went on behind all the thinking” of settling cases, Fortner said. “But I think there’s a very important principle that the public agency has, as a body, to protect those kinds of discussions with its lawyers.”

Aides to Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mike Antonovich said they had not been aware of the change and plan to question it.

“In government we have a responsibility to air our dirty laundry and address it,” said Gerry Hertzberg, Molina’s deputy chief of staff. “Otherwise, in the long term, you don’t correct your mistakes, and you’re paying out a whole lot more of taxpayer dollars.”

So far, supervisors have approved one major settlement under the new policy. Last month, they agreed to pay nearly $1.8 million to a girl who allegedly suffered brain damage during a heart operation at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in 2001. Nellie Molina, now 7, is unable to stand or speak and requires care throughout the day, said her attorney, Arnoldo Casillas.

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On Tuesday, supervisors are scheduled to consider settling a lawsuit that alleges a 12-year-old girl was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her foster father. The county’s claims board recommended a $390,000 payout.

Written by county attorneys, the memos are first sent to the county’s claims board, which has the authority to approve settlements of less than $100,000. In more expensive settlements, the board reviews the memos and makes recommendations to supervisors, who also receive the memos.

The documents have been open for public inspection for more than a decade. They serve as a justification for spending sometimes millions of dollars in cases that range from wrongful deaths of jail inmates to medical malpractice at county hospitals.

The memos explain the county’s side in lawsuits but also acknowledge shortcomings, providing an explanation of how experts probably would view such failures, and give an estimate of damages if the county lost in court. They also detail how much the county has paid to fight each case.

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The Los Angeles city attorney’s office sends similar memos to the City Council before settlement votes. A spokesman said they have been confidential since the 1980s.

“In general, it’s considered attorney-client privilege,” said Jonathan Diamond, a city legal office spokesman.

Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group, said he knew of no other agency that releases such memos and said the county was legally allowed to restrict public access.

The county’s claims board comprises a senior county lawyer, an official from the auditor-controller’s office and the county’s risk manager. County lawyers can bypass the claims board and take settlements directly to supervisors. In those cases, legal memos have never been made public.

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One case brought recently before the claims board involved a girl in foster care who alleged that her foster father had sexually assaulted her for six months starting in September 2001. Violet C., as she is named in the court file, sued the county, her foster parents and the foster family agency that placed her as part of its contract with the county.

The lawsuit contended that a county social worker suspected problems in the home but did not follow up on her suspicions. As a result, Violet remained at the home for nearly two more months, “forced to endure ... sexual molestation and abuse,” the lawsuit alleged.

Violet was moved after other foster children at the home reported the abuse, court records said. Since then, she suffered a “complete mental breakdown,” including suicide attempts, and was sent to Metropolitan State Hospital.

There was no evidence in the court file to either support or refute the allegations.

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The county denied negligence, but the claims board last month recommended a $390,000 settlement. The foster family agency has also agreed to a settlement.

Violet’s attorney, Sanford Jossen, declined to comment, citing a confidentiality clause in the proposed settlements. Defense lawyers and the county’s Department of Children and Family Services also declined, citing state laws that protect the confidentiality of foster children.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said that public disclosure of such cases is vital to hold officials accountable for mistakes or abuse.

“The most important thing is that it will save lives and reduce suffering,” Wexler said. “In the long run, it is likely to be better for the county’s bottom line. Because it won’t have to keep paying settlements again and again.”

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jack.leonard@latimes.com


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