Thursday, October 29, 2015
A.G. Allows City to Seek Councilman’s Ouster
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The City of Commerce may initiate proceedings to remove a council member who was convicted of obstruction of justice, Attorney General Kamala Harris has concluded.
Harris’s opinion, dated Tuesday, allows the city to sue Hugo Argumendo in quo warranto, a proceeding that can only be brought by, or with the permission of, the attorney general, pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure §803.
Argumendo, who pled guilty to a misdemeanor and avoided trial on a felony perjury charge, may be subject to removal for “malfeasance in office,” the attorney general explained. The city’s claim that the councilman’s offense constitutes malfeasance “presents substantial questions of law and fact warranting judicial resolution,” Harris said.
The perjury charge was filed in December 2010. Argumendo was accused of submitting a false declaration in a Los Angeles Superior Court action between the city and its former city attorney, Francisco Leal.
The city terminated Leal’s contract in 2005, and Leal sued for unpaid fees. The city cross-claimed, accusing Leal of malpractice and conflict of interest.
Argumendo claimed in his declaration that Leal’s offer to settle the case by paying the city $20,000 had never been presented to the council, and that he would have voted for such a settlement if it had been. The declaration was contradicted by confidential minutes reflecting that the offer had been discussed, and that Argumendo had supported a proposal that the city demand $60,000 or more based on the city’s incurred costs.
Leal eventually agreed to pay $70,000, but didn’t. The false declaration was submitted in opposition to the city’s motion to enforce the settlement.
Leal finally agreed to pay $175,000 to end the civil case.
Argumendo’s plea agreement required him to resign from office, and not run again for three years. He returned to the council earlier this year, topping a field of six candidates.
The city claims, however, that he cannot legally serve because Government Code §1021 disqualifies any person convicted of malfeasance from holding public office. The councilman’s position is that obstruction of justice isn’t malfeasance, and that the statute only disqualifies the official from completing his or her term, not from running again.
Harris opined that malfeasance is used as a catchall phrase for crimes involving wrongdoing and dishonesty related to occupation of a public office.
The determination of whether this applies to Argumendo, she said, must be based on specific facts.
“For example, a court could evaluate whether the facts support findings that Argumedo disclosed the contents of a closed-session city council meeting without the council’s authorization; violated the city’s attorney-client privilege without authorization; or misled a judge so that she erroneously denied the city’s motion for summary adjudication, which in turn subjected the city to continued and unnecessary litigation,” she wrote. “The court could also determine the legal questions whether Argumedo’s acts constituted malfeasance and whether those acts were intrinsically related to Argumedo’s position as a city council member.”
The opinion, No. 15-501, was prepared for Harris by Deputy Attorney General Anya M. Binsacca.
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company