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By Jorge Casuso
March 5, 2019 -- Santa Monica taxpayers will have to wait until the voting rights lawsuit ends to learn what the City has spent fighting the nearly three-year-old case.
Last week, City officials declined to provide The Lookout with the total fees paid to Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm hired to defend the City.
In response to the Lookout's request, City officials on Thursday cited attorney client privileges in the ongoing litigation.
"The legal fees paid to Gibson Dunn as part of the CVRA lawsuit is privileged information until the case is resolved," the City responded.
The Lookout's request was made after the City Council last month voted to appeal a Superior Court ruling that found Santa Monica's at-large election system discriminates against Latino voters ("Santa Monica Council Votes to Appeal Voting Rights Ruling," February 21, 2019).
The Council's unanimous vote fueled public speculation about the legal fees paid to the high-powered Los Angeles firm to fight the lawsuit filed by local Latino activists.
At the February 21 public hearing, most of the speakers who testified urged the City to drop what they view as a losing battle, saying taxpayer money could be better used.
But the total legal fees incurred by the City related to the lawsuit filed in April 2016 remains unclear ("Santa Monica Facing Lawsuit Over At-Large Council Elections," April 13, 2016).
In 2017, total fees to Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher were nearly $5 million, although the price tag included other legal matters, finance officials said at the time (" City of Santa Monica Enters Second Year of Fight Against Voting Rights Lawsuit," April 19, 2018).
Community activists have speculated in public meetings and on social media that the City's legal bill has reached $20 million.
Gibson Dunn Legal Fees
Founded in Los Angeles in 1890, the firm has more than 1,300 attorneys in 20 offices worldwide and has argued more than 100 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the firm's site.
Its clients have included Apple, Inc., Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Chevron and CNN reporter Jim Acosta in the station's press pass case against the White House.
Gibson Dunn is routinely ranked among the U.S. law firms with the highest billing rates, according to the National Law Journal (NLJ).
In 2015, the last readily available data the Lookout found, the firm's partner Theodore Olson "had the highest rate the NLJ could find in public records" at $1,800 an hour.
The three runners up had an hourly rate of $1,250 ("Billing Rates Rise, Discounts Abound," January 5, 2015).
Four years ago, Albany County asked a federal judge to throw out the $7 million legal bill Gibson Dunn and the firm DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian submitted in a voting rights lawsuit, according to a report in Albany's Times Union.
"In one instance cited by the county, five Gibson Dunn lawyers billed $38,255 for 63.55 hours of work in connection with the deposition of County Legislature Majority Leader Frank Commission, which lasted less than two hours," the article said.
The bill filed with the court was 900 pages long, according to the Times Union ("Albany County disputes $7M bill," July 8, 2015).
In a 2012 case filed against Chevron by a group of Ecuadoran villagers, the oil company said the legal fees included 36,837 hours billed by its lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, according to a 2014 report in Reuters.
"Randy Mastro, the lead lawyer for Chevron, most recently billed at a rate of $1,140 an hour," the 2014 article said. ("Chevron seeks $32 million in legal fees in Ecuador case," March 19, 2014).
Court Rules on Disclosure of Legal Fees
The City has legal precedent in refusing the Lookout's request, legal experts said.
"The courts have ruled on the issue," said Fredric Woocher, an LA attorney who specializes in campaign finance law.
"The amount of fees a City has paid could give information about its legal strategies," he said.
Woocher cited a ruling in a case filed by the ACLU after the LA County Board of Supervisors refused to produce invoices for law firms defending the County in police brutality cases.
In the October 11, 2017 ruling, the Second District held that a government entity is not required to disclose any invoices in pending litigation under the Public Records Act (PRA).
The County argued the the PRA made exceptions based on attorney-client privilege and work product. The Second District, on remand from the California Supreme Court, agreed.
Maria Loya, the lead plaintiff in Santa Monica's voting rights lawsuit, criticized the City's refusal to provide the information.
"It's very suspicious to me they don't want to share that amount," Loya said. "That means to me it's a very large amount."
Santa Monica taxpayers, she said, should be told what the City is spending as the Council prepares to approve a new fiscal budget in June.
"How can we have a budget discussion when we don't know what they're spending on the lawsuit," she said.
"It's upsetting because at the same time they're spending millions, they're telling people there's no money to fix the streets or hire another park ranger.
"So much for the transparency and the accountability that the City Council talks about," she said.
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