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New Los Angeles County Policy: Keep Lawsuit Settlements Confidential

Lawyers for Los Angeles (L.A.) County have ceased making public their internal memos recommending settlements on major lawsuits against the county because they fear that this information is only encouraging attorneys in other lawsuits to arbitrarily increase their settlement demands. Attorneys have been bootstrapping their demands for new settlements onto the old ones rather than relying upon independent evaluations of the merits.

Open-government advocate Doug Heller, director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer rights, decried this retrenchment from over a decade of openness in such reporting on grounds that it provided cover for the ineptitude of county officials and because it secreted what is plainly public information regarding government legal decisions.

Chief Deputy County Counsel Donovan Main replied, ?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.?

The memos in question are those sent by county attorneys to the county?s Claims Board. Contained in the memos are admissions of error, failure or shortcoming as well as internal costs expended to date to fight the claim. While the Claims Board has authority to settle claims below $100,000, the Board of Supervisors must review the attorney memos and approve any larger settlements. In fact, county counsel often bypasses the Claims Board for such larger settlements and sends its memos directly to the Board of Supervisors. These memos have never been made public.

Terry Francke, general counsel of open-government advocacy group Californians Aware, stated that no other agency reveals such memos and that the county was lawfully permitted to limit public access. But Gerry Hertzberg, deputy chief of staff to L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, observed that ?In government we have a responsibility to air our dirty laundry and address it. Otherwise, in the long term, you don?t correct your mistakes and you?re paying out a whole lot more of taxpayer dollars.?

Source: Los Angeles Times.

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