Scandal-plagued Vernon to hire prominent lawyers for ethics review

The embattled city of Vernon said it will announce today that it is hiring two prominent outside attorneys to conduct an ethics review of its municipal government, which has come under fire from lawmakers who are pushing to have the town disincorporated.

The hiring of former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and Robert M. Stern, former general counsel of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, is the latest move by Vernon in its battle against legislation that would break up the industrial city south of downtown L.A. Vernon has been mired in several public corruption scandals in recent years, including the indictments of two city administrators and the conviction of the city’s longtime mayor.

Vernon officials said Van de Kamp and Stern will be paid $550 and $450 an hour, respectively. The city is already spending significant sums on a team of lawyers and lobbyists working to defeat AB 46, a bill that would dissolve Vernon and make it a part of Los Angeles County. The Times reported last month that Vernon had spent over $42 million on outside attorneys in the last five years, far more than many much larger cities in Southern California.


In an interview, Van de Kamp said he was aware of concerns about Vernon’s government dating back to the 1970s, when he served as Los Angeles County district attorney. He said he took the job of independent ethics advisor based on the promise of officials that he would be allowed to produce a thorough and unbiased review.

“If they are interested in keeping their status as a chartered city, they need to run a city that’s in the mainstream,” he said. “As I look at it, my role is to call it as I see it. … If we come up with negative things, we could feed the speaker’s bill.”

Van de Kamp also acknowledged the city has a reputation for a lack of openness. “There’s no harm in trying to help them on a project like this and helping them get their act cleaned up if that’s necessary,” he said. “I think the idea here is to bring the city of Vernon into conformity with good government practices in California.”

Vernon is also the subject of an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general into compensation paid to top officials, including onetime city administrator Eric T. Fresch, who made as much as $1.65 million in 2008. The city has about 1,800 businesses but less than 100 residents — many of them family or friends of top city officials — and it has long been accused of being a fiefdom run by a small group of powerful individuals.

City Administrator Mark Whitworth said the agreement calls for the attorneys to complete a findings report in six months and a final report next year. He said the results will be made available to the public and any lawmakers who wish to see them.

Whitworth said that the review is not a response to any specific allegation and that it will be broad in scope. He said that some areas of focus are “ethics, conflict of interest, and open government issues” and that how the city retains consultants and authorizes expenses will be examined.

“This will put issues of transparency and accountability to rest,” he said.

But critics of the city see it differently and expressed skepticism Tuesday about Vernon’s motives in launching the review. The author of the disincorporation bill, Assembly Speaker John Pérez, questioned how sincere Vernon officials are about being open to change, pointing out that the city is announcing the hiring of Van de Kamp and Stern two months after he introduced his bill.

“While I appreciate the engagement of the former attorney general, AB 46 is the only vehicle that will end the corruption and abuse of power in Vernon, and I will continue to move the bill forward through the legislative process,” said Pérez, a Democrat who represents Vernon’s district.

In August of last year, Vernon announced an internal review after The Times inquired about city administrator Donal O’Callaghan’s wife’s work as a Vernon contractor. Whitworth tapped then-City Atty. Laurence Wiener to lead the review and touted him as a key part of the city’s effort to “move forward and eliminate some practices of the past.” But Wiener abruptly resigned weeks later, before the results of the review were made public. Neither he nor Whitworth has commented on the reasons for the departure.

Shortly after that, O’Callaghan resigned under pressure and was indicted on conflict of interest charges. The indictment marked the third corruption scandal in Vernon since 2006, when the city’s mayor was charged with voter fraud and its city administrator was charged with misappropriation of public funds.

Van de Kamp, a well-known state official who ran for governor in 1990, is the former president of the California Bar Assn. and currently practices law at Dewey & Leboeuf. He has previously monitored several organizations, including the Getty Trust and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division, under the cloud of controversy. He said his discussions with Vernon began in December, when he was approached by the law firm Latham & Watkins, which is helping to coordinate Vernon’s effort against AB 46.

He said he would meet with Vernon officials next week after his contract is officially approved by the City Council. He plans to extensively review the city’s policies and procedures and to “see if they are real and how they’re being managed.”

Vernon officials have strongly opposed disincorporation, arguing that it is unconstitutional and that it would threaten the city’s businesses and lead to job losses.

“If you close the doors on the opportunities here, businesses are going to move out of the state or shut down altogether,” Whitworth said. “We need to resolve this, and we need to move forward. If there are real issues, let’s address them. That’s why we’re bringing in Mr. Van de Kamp.”

At a separate hearing Tuesday, a Los Angeles city planning committee voted to ask the City Council to consider supporting AB 46 and to discuss the possibility of attempting to annex Vernon if the bill passes.

Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.