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Judge delays legal squabble between L.A. city attorney and controller

November 10, 2009 | 10:46 am

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney agreed to a two-week delay today in the legal dispute between City Atty. Carmen Trutanich and City Controller Wendy Greuel over the auditing powers of the controller’s office, but he underscored that he believes Greuel is entitled to outside legal counsel.

The lawsuit began before Trutanich and Greuel took office. Former City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo sued Greuel’s predecessor, Laura Chick, last year, charging that she acted beyond the scope of her authority when she tried to audit a workers’ compensation program in his office and subpoenaed some of his employees.

Though Trutanich said he did not agree with the lawsuit,  the judge entered a tentative ruling 10 days before the new city attorney took office. Mooney found that Chick did not have legal authority to conduct performance audits of Delgadillo’s office or the offices of other elected officials.

Greuel argues the ruling could severely limit her ability to audit city programs and asked the City Council and city attorney to dismiss the case. But so far the council has said the judge’s tentative ruling should stand.

In recent months, the two sides have wrangled over Greuel’s legal representation. Greuel stepped into the lawsuit after Chick left office and has been represented by Chick’s lawyer, Fred Woocher. But Trutanich’s office contends that only Chick – not Greuel – is a party to the lawsuit.

Earlier, the council ordered Greuel to sever ties with Woocher. But last week, the city’s top budget analyst recommended rehiring him to represent Greuel since he is most familiar with the facts of the case. The council did not have enough members at Friday’s meeting to vote on the analyst’s recommendation.

Mooney said he would delay a final decision for two weeks to allow the council to decide whether Greuel should get outside legal representation.

Greuel said today that she had learned the city attorney’s office never presented her most recent settlement offers to the council.

Greuel and Woocher rejected two settlement offers from the city attorney. In the first, city attorney officials said they would dismiss the lawsuit if Woocher waived his legal fees. Under the second alternative, the office said they would pay Woocher less than $100,000 as long as the judge was permitted to enter his final order in the case.

In a counteroffer, Greuel and Woocher said if the city dismissed the lawsuit, Woocher would accept $80,000 in reduced fees. Woocher also said he would agree to a dismissal with no immediate payment—with the understanding that he could seek his legal fees after the case was settled. Under a state statute, Woocher said, officials who are sued in their official capacity are entitled to have their legal fees paid by the city or public entity for which they work.

Greuel said today that it is “unfair and not ethical” that the decision about her legal representation is in the hands of the city attorney and members of the council, whose interests are at stake in the case.

-- Maeve Reston at L.A. City Hall

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