By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As chief financial watchdog, City Controller Laura Chick has turned up the temperature on high-profile targets in the city’s pay-to-play drama, but in the lawsuit brought against her by fired former investigator Dan Carvin, she is the one feeling the heat.
Chick is fending off charges that her swift firing of Carvin in 2002, three months after he started, was unlawful. She hired him as a special investigator to identify fraud, waste and abuse, then canned him for pursuing that goal without her express approval. Attorneys at the firm of Jackson & Lewis have billed the city close to half a million dollars for defending the case. They say Carvin was an “at-will” employee, to be fired for good cause or no cause at all. They accuse him of “quibbling” and have asked the Court of Appeal to prevent his case from going forward. Their clenched-teeth defense is not that surprising, however, considering Chick’s visible discomfort during a videotaped deposition recently.
The increasingly contentious wrongful-termination lawsuit offers a look into the controller’s failure to get a handle on law firms running up the tab on the city dime. It also is a virtual case study of the legal tactics that keep the clock running for high-dollar firms, and an embarrassing reminder of how Chick’s political rise is not without conflicting relationships. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo claims that outside firms have saved the city money in terms of results, but no one has taken a look at how they are doing it. Carvin came onboard in the Controller’s Office having seen enough ultralawyering in his time to know right where he wanted to look to see if the city is getting its money’s worth. He just didn’t get very far.
E-mails from Assistant City Attorney Christine McCall soliciting written feedback on Carvin from the attorneys he was interested in investigating are merely the first hurdle for Chick to clear in convincing a jury that Carvin deserved the boot. A closer look at Brown, Winfield & Canzoneri and Wickwire & Gavin, two firms mired in a seven-year false-claims lawsuit alleging bloated construction bills related to the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment System, is the last thing Chick needs. Brown Winfield is a politically connected land-use firm, taking in $2 million from the county in 2002, and the 14th largest campaign contributor among law firms in city elections. The City Attorney’s Office is processing a California Public Records Act request to disclose legal fees paid to the firms handling the Hyperion lawsuit. The totals, if scrutinized, could possibly make the most seasoned bean counter blush.
Chick remained calm when confronted recently by state Senator Richard Alarcon, who has promised a state audit of the city’s legal providers if Chick does not complete one by January. But during her deposition last month, her nerves were frayed as she shuffled through documents that demonstrate a thinly veiled effort by McCall to invite disparagement of Carvin from attorneys who could be subjects of such an audit. While ducking questions about why she has not replaced Carvin and denying knowledge of events leading to his firing, Chick makes it clear that she relied on events that she neither witnessed nor investigated. When asked about a contribution to her officeholder account in 2002 from Donna Black, a former lobbyist and former partner at Brown Winfield, Chick offers a vague recollection of Black, who is engaged to Chick’s former campaign consultant Harvey Englander — neither of whom are strangers to Chick.
Carvin, 62, is a veteran investigator for the IRS, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, and the MTA’s Inspector General. Before coming to the Controller’s Office, he worked on a false-claims lawsuit related to the Metro Red Line and was aware of documents that supported the city’s false-claims lawsuit against a party involved in the Hyperion Project, a construction company called Dillingham–Ray Wilson. County accounting experts estimated that the documents could help the city prove up to $2 million in false claims by Dillingham–Ray Wilson. Carvin wanted to know why Michael Simon, an attorney at Brown Winfield, had not reviewed the documents, despite billing the city for gaining access to them. Carvin had authority from his supervisor, former Director of Auditing James Armstrong, to offer his investigative services to the City Attorney’s Office. But when he attended a meeting on May 8, 2002, with Assistant City Attorneys McCall, Robert Cramer and Michael Claessens, he met with resistance. Three weeks later he was fired.
Just before the May 8 meeting, McCall solicited letters from Simon and an attorney at Wickwire & Gavin, which suggested that Carvin lacked judgment. In a letter to McCall on May 6, 2002, Wickwire attorney Jodi Lewis recommends consulting with yet another outside attorney “if Carvin’s retention is to be further considered.” Following the May 8 meeting, memos by McCall and Claessens describing Carvin as being off the range and a follow-up call by McCall to former Deputy Controller Patricia Canfield sealed his fate.
Chick says Carvin did not have permission to pursue an investigation of Brown Winfield’s billings. Carvin claims he was simply pursuing authorized investigative leads. A key issue is identifying the magic words used to commence an investigation and determining whether Carvin uttered those words. Whereas once they might have been able to settle with Carvin for less than they are billing the city, attorneys at Jackson & Lewis are fighting facts with exhaustive legal arguments in a way that illustrates the problems of containing legal costs. Not to mention the difficulty of Chick’s auditing City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, her legal adviser and political ally, and his office’s oversight of outside attorneys. An e-mail from McCall to her supervisor confirms that “the Controller’s Office is terminating special investigator Daniel Carvin,” and that “Laura would call Rocky” if the controller were to look into the defense or handling of any case.