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Central Basin Refuses HMG-LCCN Public Records Request Concerning Massive Attorney’s Fees

Wednesday July 24, 2019, 4:00 p.m.

BY BRIAN HEWS

Attorney’s fees at Central Basin Municipal Water have been so high that the Board of Directors was recently forced to take drastic action, cutting administrative expenses while laying off five employees.

At the behest of Central Basin rate-payers, HMG-LCCN submitted a public records request asking for an accounting of fees since July 2018.

And it was denied.

Central Basin General Manager Kevin Hunt, a staunch ally and defender of the Commerce-based water agency’s law firm Nossaman, LLC, oversaw the denial process.

Central Basin GM Kevin Hunt

HMG-LCCN’s request was not overly burdensome, allowing for redaction of billing details, only asking for the hours billed and the case description, for example, “Huntington Park v. Central Basin.”

The line-item fees are never included in the Board Agenda, only broken out as “non-litigation and litigation.”

According to Central Basin board meeting minutes, Nossaman has racked up an average of $53,000 per month during the past six months with the origin of the fees lying squarely on the shoulders of Hunt, who was involved in two current lawsuits and another lawsuit that is pending.

The three lawsuits are the only current litigation against Central Basin.

With Nossaman providing the reasoning, Hunt leaned on a recent – and widely criticized California Supreme Court decision related to records requests – eschewing transparency and denying HMG-LCCN’s request.

The response letter stated, “this email responds to your California Public Records Act submitted on February 26, 2019. There are no disclosable documents. When a legal matter remains pending and active, the privilege encompasses everything in an invoice, including the amount of aggregate fees (Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors v. Superior Court, (2016) 2 Cal.5th 282).

“Even though the amount of money paid for legal services is generally not privileged, an invoice that shows a sudden uptick in spending might very well reveal much of a client’s investigative efforts and trial strategy. Mid litigation swings in spending, for example could reveal an impending filing or outsized concern about a recent event.”

“The Supreme Court’s holding in Board of Supervisors applies to the attorney billing records and financial documents that are at issue here, which disclose the litigation expenses for pending and active legal matters. The trial court’s order compelling such disclosure must therefore be reversed. This concludes the handling of your request.”

Of the three lawsuits against Central Basin, two are active, with a city of Huntington Park lawsuit alleging Hunt fixed the appointment process of CB Vice-President John Oskoui, illegally disqualifying Huntington Park resident Dr. Mike Gomez while appointing Oskoui.

The second lawsuit involves former CB employee Ron Bielke, who is suing the agency for the unlawful release of his personal health records to the Los Angeles Times.

The records were leaked to Times reporter Adam Elmharek, who eventually wrote a one-sided article somehow accusing Bielke of staging his fall and injury for financial gain, an injury where he nearly broke his neck and endured several major surgeries.

According to documents, Bielke’s Downey-based attorney Steve Lopez has made numerous offers to enter mediation to resolve the matter and save both sides considerable legal costs.

Yet, during depositions under oath, CB Director’s Art Chacon and Phil Hawkins stated that no such offer has been shared with the board by Nossaman.

 

 

It is estimated that Central Basin has spent well over $125,000 defending the District in the Bielke case.

The Board tried to install guardrails to prevent runaway fees, implementing a policy for Board approval of fees exceeding $25,000 in a one month cycle.

But even that did not work.

In every vote, the three appointed Directors-John Oskoui, Dan Arrighi, and Frank Heldman-voted yes, along with Board President Bob Apodaca.

 

Voting bloc: from (l-r) appointed directors Frank Heldman, Dan Arrighi, and John Oskoui.

 

Heldman even motioned for a vote, seconded by Arrighi, to pay Nossaman $49,000 in April.

At this past Monday’s regular Central Basin Board meeting, Hunt once again asked for the Board to approve attorney’s fees to Nossaman in excess of $25,000, with Nossaman billing nearly $40,000 for June 2019.

This time the vote was dead locked with President Apodaca, Oskoui, Arrighi, and Heldman voting yes and Directors Art Chacon, Phil Hawkins, Leticia Vasquez, and Martha Camacho-Rodriguez voting no.

Hunt was once again upset, but not at the level he displayed at a Jan. 28, 2019 meeting.

In that meeting, Hunt was disrespectful, bordering on insubordination.

During a vote to approve monies over $25,000 he stated, “We cannot continually ask people to provide Central Basin services and then not pay them for their work. Especially when they did good work, as good as Nossaman.”

Referring to the Board he stated, “people have benefited from [Nossaman’s] services and yet continuously vote against paying them…it is ruining their reputation in the industry.”

“Good people would not work for a District that continues to not pay. We need leadership so our bills are paid at the appropriate time.”

“I am very disappointed, but not surprised,” said CB Director Art Chacon, “Kevin likes to play games, and the games start lawsuits, like the Huntington Park lawsuit, costing people their jobs and rate payer’s money. I vote no every time to pay anything over $25,000, the fees are out of hand and Kevin will not let us see the back-up?”

When informed of Hunt’s denial, Central Basin Director Leticia Vasquez, a frequent critic of Hunt, told HMG-LCCN, “the public has the right to know how much we are paying in attorney fees. I am disappointed, but not surprised, at the actions of our General Manager [Kevin Hunt] and Nossaman attorney Lloyd Pellman.”

Vasquez then blasted Hunt and Pellman saying, “these two have continually colluded and worked against the interests of our rate payers for years now, we are entitled to view the bills.”

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