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Vernon's city attorney to leave post

October 11, 2010 |  5:50 pm

The city of Vernon, facing scrutiny by the state attorney general and Los Angeles County prosecutor, is parting ways with its city attorney, who has been conducting an internal probe of one of its top officials' financial dealings.

Neither City Atty. Laurence S. Wiener nor City Administrator Mark C. Whitworth would spell out the reasons for the abrupt change, which takes effect Nov. 1 and comes amid revelations in The Times of lavish salaries, benefits and expenses enjoyed by top Vernon officials.

Just two months ago, Vernon officials praised the work of Wiener’s firm in the city’s efforts toward greater transparency.

That endorsement followed reports in The Times that some Vernon officials were paid more than $1 million a year and that administrator Donal O’Callaghan had received consulting fees through his wife’s company. O’Callaghan was placed on paid leave in late August after The Times inquired about $243,898 he received in consulting payments from the city through the first half of this year, in addition to his regular annual salary of more than $380,000.

Billed at $300 for each “extra” hour he worked, the $243,898 was paid through Tara Energy Inc., a company headed by Kimberly McBride O'Callaghan, records show. At the time, Vernon officials could not explain that arrangement and said they had instructed Wiener to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the city’s financial dealings with the couple.

O'Callaghan was city administrator and director of light and power until July 21, when he stepped down to become head of capital projects for Vernon’s municipal power plant. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said last month that it would investigate the contract to see whether it represented a conflict of interest.

The state attorney general has launched a broader investigation of Vernon city government, serving a subpoena for a wide variety of records. Despite leaving Vernon, Wiener said he expects to complete his review before the end of the month, when Vernon City Clerk Willard Yamaguchi will become interim city attorney while Vernon officials seek a replacement. Wiener’s firm, Richards, Watson & Gershon, represents more than two dozen other Southern California cities and public agencies. Wiener also is Beverly Hills’ city attorney.

In an open letter to Vernon businesses Aug. 24, Whitworth lauded Richards, Watson & Gershon as “one of the state’s pre-eminent public agency law firms," citing it as part of the city’s efforts toward “moving forward and eliminating some practices of the past.” What has changed between then and now is unclear, and neither side would say.

Wiener referred questions about the shakeup to Vernon officials. Whitworth also declined to discuss Wiener’s departure but described it as “a mutual decision.” He issued a statement expressing appreciation to Wiener and the firm, which “oversaw the implementation of numerous important changes to city governance.”

One of the most significant changes during Wiener’s stint was the elimination of a two-tiered salary structure that had allowed O’Callaghan and other top officials to bill for extra hours worked –- an arrangement equivalent to overtime that is unusual for salaried workers and all but unheard of in the public sector.

-- Kim Christensen, Sam Allen and Hector Becerra