Santa Monica Lookout
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Santa Monica Hires Outside Firm to Conduct Ethics Review

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

November 13, 2015 -- The prosecution's lead investigator in the Enron price-rigging case will advise the City of Santa Monica in an independent review of best ethical practices when it comes to the relationship between elected City Council members and the City manager's office and staff.

In a 6-1 vote at their November 10 meeting, with Councilmember Terry O'Day voting no, the Council approved a proposal submitted by the law firm of Hueston Hennigan, headed by attorney John Hueston, the lead trial lawyer in the Enron case.

“I bring over 20 years of experience in investigating and remediating municipal and local government issues as well as broad experience in diagnosing and remedying governance problems for a range of public entities and Fortune 500 companies,” Hueston wrote in his proposal.

“I believe that my background and experience provide the independence and balanced judgment necessary for the investigation of issues arising from the Riel termination and the recommendation of governance improvements and best practices.”

Although final terms of Hueston's contract must still be approved by the City Manager Rick Cole, Hueston's proposal includes a pay rate of $545 an hour “for all attorneys working on the matter.”

According to his proposal, the consulting work “should be concluded within a three-month period.”

The Council ordered the review in the wake of the controversy involving allegations that Councilmember Pam O'Connor violated Santa Monica's anti-corruption law by mounting a campaign to fire Elizabeth Riel, a former political opponent hired by the City. (“Santa Monica Activists Seek Probe of Councilmember's Role in Employee Firing,” September 1, 2015),

Riel was hired last year as head of City communications, but was fired by former City Manager Rod Gould before she could start. Riel sued the City and received a $710,000 settlement approved by the council in July.

In September, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City called on the City Attorney’s Office and the City Council to conduct independent investigations into O’Connor’s role in Riel's termination.

Last month, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to investigate the corruption allegations, saying the statute of limitations has expired on the case.

O’Connor told The Lookout in September that the calls for an investigation were politically motivated, but said she wouldn't block an independent look into the situation.

“Anybody can do any investigation they want,” she said. “Nothing illegal was done.”

At their meeting Tuesday, Cole said the review by Hueston's firm will look at not only the Riel situation and what happened there, but also where the City might clarify its rules of ethics in government to avoid a similar situation.

Councilwoman Gleam Davis said she also hopes for a wider review that focuses on ethical and policy issues that help elected officials in the future.

“I'm hoping this will be about not only what happened but how the council relates to the staff and staff to the Council. An evaluation of what went wrong can be helpful, but I'm hoping we don't overly focus on this one thing.”

Cole said the City's employees and Council “hold themselves to much higher standards” than any of the agencies he's worked for in 30 years in the public sector and praised the Council for having “the bravery and integrity to get to the bottom of it to see what we need to do to fix some of the rules so that we do uphold to those high standards.”

The outside adviser will have access to all City documents and will also be able to interview employees, if they determine that interviews are needed, Cole said.

O'Day said he believes the entire exercise is a waste of time.

“To me, it feels like a waste of money,” he said. “I don't think it's going to shed any new light or provide any new information. I hope I'm wrong.”

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