Dan Carvin may be out of a job, and he may have a nasty lawsuit to resolve, but state lawmakers are becoming interested in what got him fired in the first place.

On Wednesday, state Senator Richard Alarcon called for the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee to examine the City Attorney’s Office’s use of public funds in the hiring of outside legal counsel. Carvin was hired as an investigator by City Controller Laura Chick in 2002 with an eye toward improving her office’s oversight of law-firm billings, but was fired within weeks after he broached the subject of overbillings by outside counsel with the City Attorney’s Office. Now, Alarcon wants to talk to Carvin, who has a lawsuit pending against the city, to hear what he has to say.

“I have had a longstanding concern about the influence outside attorneys have on the public sector in the city of Los Angeles,” Alarcon, a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, said Tuesday, as Carvin arrived in Sacramento to testify before the state audit committee. Alarcon is questioning Chick’s desire to deal with overbilling by law firms. “I am deeply concerned that the city has not shown willingness to investigate this matter,” he wrote on Wednesday to the state audit committee, of which he is a co-chair. “At a time of fiscal crisis for the city, taxpayer money should not be spent without some assurance that public funds are being used in the best interests to the public.”

Alarcon is asking state auditors to approve an audit in the event Chick refuses to call for one herself. The approval of his committee likely depends on whether she does. “If the city controller undertakes an audit, I will defer my request,” he said Tuesday. “If her audit does not address the questions I have raised, we will go from there.” Specifically, Alarcon has requested an investigation of outside legal costs from 1995 to 2004; a review of the sufficiency of city oversight of outside legal counsel; a review of steps the city has taken to identify conflicts of interest among outside counsel; and an analysis of the impact of legal expenses on the city budget.

Carvin is gratified that Alarcon has shown an interest in the matter. “Dan was concerned about city attorneys not knowing if work was done or it was paid for. He asked questions and he was fired,” said his attorney Louis. J. Cohen. “To my client, this means his areas of concern warrant further attention.” But oddly, Carvin represents the potential glitch in Alarcon’s request, which is that if Chick launches an audit, the question is inevitably raised as to how independent she can be in auditing her own legal advisers at the City Attorney’s Office.

Before coming to the Controller’s Office, Carvin served for 35 years as an investigator for the IRS, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Inspector General’s Office. While at the MTA, he had reviewed documents related to a massive false-claims lawsuit and had some questions for the City Attorney’s Office, which was overseeing a lawsuit that he felt was related. But when Chick hired him and he questioned the City Attorney’s Office on whether an outside firm had followed through on a review of sealed documents, for which it had billed time, he met with some resistance. Outside firms hired by the city, at the request of the City Attorney’s Office, prepared written memos that questioned Carvin’s ability and instincts as an investigator. Communication took place between the City Attorney’s Office and the Controller’s Office, and before Carvin knew it, Chick fired him.

Carvin and his lawyer, Louis J. Cohen, were in court recently staving off the city’s effort to get Carvin’s case tossed. They succeeded. On August 5, Superior Court Judge Robert Hess ruled that Carvin may proceed with his lawsuit against the city for wrongful discharge. Chick’s office, which has maintained that she fired Carvin for good cause and in good faith, did not return calls for comment. On Monday, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo addressed the question of how his office advises Chick’s office. “On audits, we give advice on how to communicate with state and federal prosecutors, for instance, because we have a good relationship with those agencies and we often are there at the same time as the controller,” Delgadillo said. But how realistic is it that Chick can aggressively audit the City Attorney’s Office, upon which she so frequently relies? he was asked. And are there any institutional roadblocks or inherent conflicts there? “I see no conflict,” Delgadillo says. “I’m subject to the controller’s mandate under the City Charter, and will cooperate with her fully.”

Alarcon says he has seen improvement in the oversight of outside law firms since Delgadillo took office in 2001, but that there is always room for greater protection of public funds. “I believe the state should not do this unless it has to,” Alarcon says. “I believe it is prudent for the controller to undertake this audit. Are law firms gaming the system? If so, that will come out eventually. Right now I’m curious why Dan Carvin believes further investigation is warranted.”

LA Weekly