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Rocky's Stomach Punch 

The $1.5 million award to a fired prosecutor forces a few questions about the city attorney’s judgment

Wednesday, Apr 12 2006
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FOR A GUY WHO WANTS TO BE California’s attorney general, Rocky Delgadillo has a strange way of showing respect for the law. Last week’s verdict against the City Attorney’s Office, in which Orange County jurors voted 11-1 to award former city prosecutor Lynn Magnandonovan $1.5 million for her wrongful termination, was more than the end to the public trashing of an annoying employee.

The verdict was a referendum on ill-conceived decision-making at the highest levels of Delgadillo’s office, and on his willingness to disregard law, procedure and policy. He dragged a handful of judges into a doomed action and caused them to testify under oath — in some cases unconvincingly. He advised the City Council not to follow a law that calls for an independent investigation when an elected official is sued — that official being him.

Jurors said the city is lucky the verdict wasn’t worse. They emphasized the failure of Delgadillo’s office to follow its own policies and to document its reasons for firing a dogged, sometimes preachy and often irritating prosecutor whom Delgadillo had no use for when he took over the tired shop he inherited from former City Attorney Jim Hahn in 2001.

“We could tell the City Attorney’s Office screwed up,” said Joshua Pearce, an assistant office manager at the law firm of Crowell & Moring. “If the plaintiff was more likable we would’ve made an example of the city and awarded even greater damages.” Added juror No. 21, a federal investigator who asked to remain anonymous, “If Magnandonovan was as bad as the City Attorney’s Office said, it would have showed up on paper. You don’t treat an 11-year employee like that without some documentation of what she did wrong.”

Magnandonovan was fired after complaining about Delgadillo’s refusal to honor the terms of her settlement in a gender-discrimination claim, in which his predecessor, Hahn, named Magnandonovan head of the office’s hate-crimes unit. The triggering event came in late 2001, when she clashed with a gay judge over the case of a repeat sex offender whose probation was revoked after Magnandonovan was late to court. With attorney’s fees, which are still being tallied, the lawsuit will cost the city more than $5 million.

By many accounts, Delgadillo banked on his private lawyers’ ability to tear Magnandonovan down — and on the willingness of L.A. judges to try to corroborate the dirt. Attorneys from Baker Hostetler dug deep and got nasty, trotting out witnesses who accused her of foul language and inappropriate conduct. Then Delgadillo blamed Hahn for leaving behind a problem employee. In a closing argument, Delgadillo’s private lawyers claimed that Hahn had indulged Magnandonovan because he was running for mayor and couldn’t afford any trouble. Delgadillo has always said he would do better than Hahn in running the City Attorney’s Office, saying he was going to make it more professional.

The Magnandonovan case showed jurors how Delgadillo’s indifference to due process gouged city taxpayers. Testimony from his top deputies left an impression that they were not to be believed. “We were surprised it had gotten this far,” Pearce said on Monday. “The city was taking a long shot.” He called the explanations offered by Delgadillo’s lawyers “ridiculous,” and said he was astounded at the cost to the city. “Looking at the number of attorneys, you just know they could have settled a lot cheaper. At trial you could go to your notes and tell when they were snowballing you.”

Other jurors took note of disturbing conduct by members of the City Attorney’s Office and their private lawyers. After the verdict, Judge Michael Hayes asked jurors to fill out a questionnaire, in which they were asked to comment on the court and the lawyers. Some of the observations were strikingly parallel to the city’s reasons for firing Magnandonovan. According to two sources who reviewed the questionnaires, which were anonymous, one juror noticed Assistant City Attorney Zna Houston smirking and muttering profanity under her breath while Magnandonovan’s lawyer gave his closing argument. Another noticed Baker Hostetler partner Naomi Young rolling her eyes. These were the same observations Los Angeles judges offered about Magnandonovan; Delgadillo’s office relied upon such complaints in building the case for firing Magnandonovan. Juror Hilda Marie Gomez, a first-grade teacher, said the employment investigation conducted by Houston was “horrible.” She said, “It obviously was a poorly run investigation.”

Delgadillo’s reliance on judges’ credibility failed to save him from ignoring due process. Los Angeles judges Patricia Schnegg and Yvette Palazuelos and appellate Judge Laurie Zelon gave depositions in which they painted Magnandonovan as disrespectful and annoying. Schnegg was not called as a witness at trial. Pearce says that Palazuelos’ testimony was not credible. She testified that Magnandonovan inappropriately disqualified a juror on the basis of race. Magnandonovan had claimed it was because the juror was sleeping in court. The juror later admitted she had dozed off. “The judge’s testimony didn’t correspond to the transcript of the hearing,” Pearce said.

“The city’s whole case was about claiming that Lynn wasn’t respectful,” said Michael King, one of Magnandonovan’s lawyers. He and co-counsel Samuel Wells interviewed jurors afterward. According to Wells and King, the jury did not believe Deputy City Attorney Earl Thomas when he testified that Magnandonovan had made homophobic remarks about Los Angeles Judge Joseph Biderman in the past. Biderman, who is gay, took the probation violation of repeat sex offender David Newman off the court calendar when Magnandonovan was late to court. Magnandonovan accused Biderman of personalizing differences the two had encountered during the Newman case. Biderman claimed she accused him of being soft on sex offenders because he is gay. Jurors could not help but notice that Thomas never mentioned previous remarks by Magnandonovan until after he was named a defendant in the lawsuit. “We felt [Thomas] was grasping at straws,” juror Gomez said.

Secrecy and insulation for Delgadillo were top priorities. Delgadillo asked the court to seal his entire deposition. Depositions of his former top deputy, Terree Bowers, and deputies Maureen Siegel, Deborah Sanchez, Molly Roff-Sheridan, Charles Goldenberg, Thomas Griego, Houston and Thomas were partially sealed. “Anything that could hurt Delgadillo politically was taken out of public view,” King said.

Lawyers in Los Angeles took a mixed but dim view of the three-year, multimillion dollar debacle, which led to recusal of the entire Los Angeles Superior Court because so many judges gave interviews supporting Magnandonovan’s firing. A veteran assistant city attorney said at least three opinions were prevalent in the office after the verdict: “Some were supportive of Lynn even though they saw she was an odd duck. Some felt that if you can’t fire her, then whom can you fire? Some felt the whole thing was driven by Rocky running for office; the Star Chamber where decisions are made is no different than the invidious environment where retaliation occurs.”

On Tuesday, sources said that Maureen Siegel, the attorney assigned to oversee the litigation, presented a recap of the case to her superiors. Siegel, sources said, blamed the verdict on the jury’s lack of understanding of the legal profession and the poor impression made by the judges who testified against Magnandonovan.

Christine McCall is a 30-year veteran of the City Attorney’s Office, now an administrative-law judge. She was an employee representative when Magnandonovan’s case hit her desk three years ago. “The case for Lynn’s firing was a total departure from legal process, the office’s policies, the requirements imposed on other city departments, and the very instructions we are taught to follow,” McCall says. “I’m embarrassed to admit that I always thought someone would have the authority and the standing and the integrity to go to Rocky Delgadillo, Terree Bowers or [chief of staff] Ann D’Amato and tell them there was no ground under their feet. Maybe someone did and they didn’t want to hear it.”

McCall is particularly disturbed by the use of judges to bolster the case for firing Magnandonovan. She says a well-regarded handbook for judges clearly states that when judges have a problem with a public lawyer, they are to use their power to order contempt of court, and not intercede with the lawyer’s employer. “The judges could be subject to charges of misconduct. I faxed a copy of this guideline to Delgadillo, Bowers and D’Amato, and I cannot explain why no one took a breath of clean air and realized what they were doing was wrong.”

Having given a deposition in the case and testified at trial — qualified by the court as an expert witness, with no objection from Baker Hostetler — McCall rated the city’s private representation as “ineffective, dispirited and mediocre.” She said, “It was a remarkably underskilled performance given the amount of money the city spent.” The city approved a contract for $1.85 million, and as of last month had paid out $1.45 million of that. Final bills are pending.

McCall says one of the benefits of being a public lawyer is the supposed lack of pressure to take liberties with the truth. “You don’t have to risk losing clients, and you don’t have to straddle the ethical dilemmas that private lawyers do. Yet it boggles the mind that a group of public lawyers could get together and suspend the law and the facts in this way. These are not elastic concepts. For an office that has prosecutorial authority, the willingness of management to do so places everyone in jeopardy.”

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