Thursday, December 29, 2011
Judge Grants Limited Evidentiary Hearing on Motion To Recuse City Attorney in Billboard Case
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Attorneys for several billboard companies and property owners being prosecuted by Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich yesterday won a partial victory in their bid for an evidentiary hearing on their motion to recuse Trutanich’s office from the case.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Georgina Torres Rizk ruled that attorneys who were allegedly present at a settlement conference between city prosecutors and the defendants can be called to testify regarding the events of that meeting.
Rizk whittled down the original list from 13—which included and several high-level administrators—to three: former Chief Assistant City Attorney Jeff Isaacs, Deputy City Attorney Jose Antonio Egurbide, and attorney Raaqim Knight, who is counsel for one of the defendants in a related civil case.
She ruled that Trutanich and Chief Deputy William Carter could not be called to the stand since they were not present during the settlement talks. Rizk also declined to hear from former Chief Deputy Curt Livesay or Deputy District Attorney David Berger—a one-time special assistant to Trutanich who has become an outspoken critic of his former boss.
Any proffered testimony by those people regarding the internal policies of the City Attorney’s Office to address conflicts of interest would be irrelevant to the issue of whether an impermissible conflict existed in this case, the judge found.
Deputy City Attorney Richard Kraft yesterday argued against the need to call any of the witnesses requested by the defense, which he said was engaged in “a fishing expedition,” but Rizk said she would hear from the persons who were present at the settlement conference.
After the hearing, Kraft deferred comment to Carter, who had been present in the audience. Carter praised Rizk’s ruling as “very thorough and reasoned.” He said the judge “is providing the defense with a fair and full opportunity to argue their position and has rightly focused the discussion on the persons and events of the June global settlement discussions,” which “has been our position all along.”
Anthony V. Salerno, one of the attorneys representing MD Graphic Installers Inc. and its primary owner, remarked yesterday that Rizk’s decision to hold a limited evidentiary hearing was “somewhat unexpected,” and that he was “hoping that Judge Rizk is not just trying to ‘bulletproof’ her eventual ruling by grounding it on hard-to-review factual findings.”
After losing a discovery motion before the judge last month, Salerno had predicted Rizk was poised to reject the disqualification motion next.
The motion, filed in October by Salerno and his associate, Stephen T. Morgan, contends that Trutanich’s office filed civil and criminal actions against their clients after various landowners whose buildings had displayed graphics installed by their clients sued the city in federal district court, asserting that they had a constitutional right to display advertising on their property.
Salerno and Morgan said the city attorney was using the civil and criminal actions to gain leverage in the federal case, and conditioning a favorable resolution of the criminal case on the payment of a substantial settlement of the civil case.
In November, Rizk ruled that the city attorney’s office was “authorized to bring both” the civil and criminal actions against the defendants, and “authorized to settle them” together.
She said then that the defendants had not made a credible showing that the city attorney conditioned dismissal of the criminal case on resolution of the federal case, or that “the city attorney or any deputy has a personal or pecuniary interest in the civil or criminal case” giving rise to a conflict of interest, and denied the defendants’ request for discovery to aid in developing their claims.
Salerno suggested yesterday that perhaps Rizk “realized that we are raising a substantial issue” since the last hearing, but “my pessimistic side says otherwise.”
He said it was “disappointing that we may be limited in what we will be allowed to present” at trial, and that “if we don’t prevail and have to do a writ to the appellate division, our position will be that our being precluded from requesting discovery and being limited in presenting evidence are in denial of due process and fair trial rights.”
The next pre-trial hearing is set for Feb. 1, pending the witnesses’ availability.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company