Amid the fuss about the private outside lawyers hired by City Atty. Mike Feuer to litigate a big case, I wonder why there wasn't anyone among his office's more than 500 lawyers who could do the work at city pay.
I bet Feuer wishes he had gone down the hall for a city lawyer instead of employing New York attorney Paul Paradis and Beverly Hills lawyer Paul Kiesel for a lawsuit against the big consulting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which implemented a disastrous Department of Water and Power billing system in 2013. The rollout resulted in hundreds of thousands of DWP customers being overbilled by $67 million. Already mad about previous DWP foul-ups, customers sued.
It's an incredibly complicated lawsuit and would take me considerable space to explain.
What I have puzzled about is why Feuer went outside his office for legal help. His decision created a furor and may have interfered with his thoughts about running for mayor.
The whole idea of the city attorney hiring expensive private lawyers has always mystified me. I feel the same about the county counsel, another public agency that hires many private lawyers, known as outside counsel, to represent Los Angeles County in lawsuits and other legal matters. Much of the $145 million the county paid out for lawsuits last year went to private firms.
Why not give the work to lawyers on the public payroll?
I asked my friend Bob Stern, co-author of the state political reform act, former chief counsel for the state fair election practices commission and an expert on the confluence of public and private law.
"Some cases," he said, "require a specialized attorney." When the election commission was getting started, he said, it lacked an experienced legal staff to handle groundbreaking enforcement cases. The city and the county, he said may be confronted with complicated cases involving millions of dollars and needs real experts in the field. Or their cases may rise to the U.S. Supreme Court, the major league of legal practice, home of complex cases and impatient justices.
The first question someone in Feuer's position should ask, Stern said, is there anyone in the office who have handled such cases in the past or who has the talent to undertake it?
Those are good questions for Feuer. Did he search his office for talent in the Department of Water and Power billing case? How did he pick the outside counsel he hired?
It's not as though the DWP is new to the city attorney's office. The city attorney has been representing water and power since L.A. stole the water from the Owens Valley early in the 20th century. There must be someone in that storehouse of water and power law who knows how to handle a billing dispute.