Tiny California city bulks up on lawyers, spends $54 million in 5 years

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The city of Vernon, California must hold some sort of record when it comes to hiring and paying for top-notch legal talent. According to an investigative report in the Los Angeles Times, the city of fewer than 100 residents spent over $54 million in legal fees in the last five years, mostly to powerful and nationally prominent law firms.

The city made headlines last year when the state’s attorney general’s office launched an investigation into the city’s finances, after the Los Angeles Times reported that its top in-house lawyer, former city attorney Eric T. Fresch, made $1.65 million in 2008.

State officials say that the industrial city, which had 91 residents in 2000 and has the smallest population of any incorporated city in California, operates as a fiefdom for the benefit of its handful of elected officials- and the law firms which represent it.

The city is home to over 1,800 businesses, and owns a power generating plant, as well as a natural gas distribution system. It has an annual budget of $300 million to run those operations and maintain other basic services, but spends nothing on schools, parks, or social programs like most other cities.

Records obtained by the Times show that since 2005, $42 million was paid to outside legal firms, while another $12 million was paid to in-house lawyers. The records, obtained though a public records act, do not show a breakdown of the legal issues on which the money was spent.

One of the issues on which large sums were paid was the failed attempt to build a 943-megawatt power plant at a cost of $450 million. The city assembled a team of top lawyers, consultants and lobbyists, and former politicians, to lobby state officials and neighboring communities.

Critics also say that the city is free to spend large sums on lawyers to overpower environmental groups, and government agencies such as the Central Basin Water District and The Los Angeles Unified School District.

On at least one recent occasion, the city spent millions to block county prosecutors from investigating voter fraud and embezzlement of public funds by city officials.

In 2006, when the city’s longtime mayor and city administrator were indicted on public corruption charges, Los Angeles County district attorney Max Huntsman said that the city used heavyweight outside legal firms to prevent prosecutors from obtaining city records. After a year of fighting in court over the issue, a judge finally ordered the release of the records.

State Assembly Speaker John A. Perez has introduced legislation that would disincorporate any city in the state with a population of under 150 residents, and thus, would only apply to Vernon. In order to fight the bill, city officials are now planning to spend more than ever on its lawyers.

Los Angeles Times

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