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De la Torre Scores Key Victory in Conflict of Interest Case

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By Jorge Casuso

June 17, 2022 -- A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Thursday solidified his finding last September that Councilmember Oscar de la Torre does not have a conflict of interest in the Voting Rights lawsuit his wife and the organization he headed filed against the City.

The tentative ruling by Judge Richard L. Fruin, Jr. represents a key victory for de la Torre, who sued the City after the Council in January 2021 barred him from deliberating on the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit.

The Council, heeding the advice of then City Attorney George Cardona, contended that while de la Torre may not benefit financially from the case, he has a personal or "common law" conflict of interest.

In his 19-page ruling Fruin disagreed, expanding on his October 5 decision rejecting the City's motion to dismiss the case ("Judge Rejects City's Motion to Dismiss de la Torre's Case," October 5, 2021).

"De La Torre does not have a personal interest in the CVRA Litigation because that lawsuit does not seek relief that is individual or personal to De La Torre, nor to his immediate family or his business interests," Fruin wrote.

Fruin found that it is "immaterial" that de la Torre's wife, Maria Loya, is a lead plaintiff in the case or that before he was elected in November 2020 he "actively participated" in the lawsuit as head of the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA), the other lead plaintiff.

A common law conflict involves "a personal interest that is different from the general public’s interest," Fruin wrote. The voting rights lawsuit "addresses a matter of significant public debate in the Santa Monica community."

De la Torre hailed the ruling, which stands as the order of the Court unless changed at the upcoming hearing.

"It's great to be vindicated by an objective judge," de la Torre said after the ruling. "The Council majority weaponized the City Attorney's office.

"Thankfully due process put the brakes on a deliberate attempt to silence minority voices."

Officials for the City, which is closed this Friday and on Monday, did not return a request for comment by deadline.

While finding that the Council’s action in disqualifying de la Torre "is not supported by sufficient evidence," Fruin ruled against the Councilmember's contention that the City violated the Brown Act.

"Even if a court should determine that the City Council acted without substantial evidence that court finding should not justify a concurrent finding that the Brown Act was violated," Fruin wrote.

"Any such finding, leading to concurrent damage and legal fee remedies, would discourage city councils to deciding conflict of interest issues."

The judge, however, questioned the reasons given by Mayor Sue Himmelrich for her vote on January 26, 2021 disqualifying de la Torre.

Himmelrich's remarks, Fruin said, suggest her vote was "influenced by a concern that de la Torre might relay confidential communications from the City’s lawyers provided in closed meeting with the City Council to the CVRA plaintiffs (one being de la Torre’s wife) and their lawyers.

"There is nothing to back up any such suspicion," Fruin wrote, adding that de la Torre was a member of the School Board for 18 years and is familiar with the Brown Act. "There is no evidence that has occurred or likely would occur.

"If the majority of the City Council had a concern that de la Torre would misuse confidential attorney-client information learned in closed meetings, it is an unspoken concern," Fruin wrote.

"An unspoken concern cannot be the basis for finding a common law conflict of interest. Any reason for finding a councilmember is disqualified must be clear in the record and supported by substantial evidence."

Filed in 2016, the voting rights lawsuit -- which charges Santa Monica's at-large election system discriminates against Latino voters -- is currently before the California Supreme Court ("Supreme Court Takes Up Voting Rights Lawsuit," October 21, 2020).

De la Torre's attorney, Wilfredo Trivino-Perez, said Thursday's rulling marked "a very important decision for us.

"There will be a trial," Trivino said, "but all the necessary issues have been determined by the judge."

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