Monday, May 13, 2002
Judge Sets Deadline for Objections to Review of Seized South Gate Material
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Lawyers trying to block the District Attorney’s Office from examining documents seized in a corruption probe of the city of South Gate will have until June 7 to file their objections, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge said Friday.
All the material seized in the searches remains under seal, including six to eight boxes of documents taken from the downtown law offices of Albright, Yee & Schmit and 6,600 pages of information taken from offices in South Gate City Hall.
The District Attorney’s Office executed warrants on 15 locations, including the Spring Street office of the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, on May 2 in connection with the probe. In addition to their city offices, the homes of city Treasurer Albert Robles, City Attorney Salvador Alva, Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel, Councilwoman Maria Benavides and acting City Manager Dennis Young were searched, attorney George B. Newhouse Jr. of Thelen Reid & Priest said.
The city attorney’s office and those of the Albright and Thelen Reid firms were among four law offices searched. The home and offices of Eduardo Olivo, special counsel to the city of South Gate, were also searched, as was Albright’s home.
A special master was on site at the Thelen Reid search to seal documents at the firm’s request, but not at the other offices.
Special masters for searches are not required for attorneys who are targets of criminal probes. The law provides for other exceptions to the special master requirement, and the District Attorney’s Office would not confirm that the other firms are suspected in crimes.
The City Council majority—Ruvalcaba, Benavides and Moriel—are considered backers of Robles and have been targeted in a recall campaign along with him. Albright is representing the city in a series of lawsuits spurred by that recall drive.
Council members Henry Gonzalez and Hector De La Torre and City Clerk Carmen Avalos were then targeted in a separate recall drive.
Friday’s hearing was the second on objections to examining the seized material. The first was held before Pounders a week earlier, the day after the search warrants were executed.
Carl Moor of Munger, Tolles & Olson, representing the Albright firm, said he plans to present Pounders with motions on whether seized material was in the scope of the warrant, and if it was in the scope of the warrant, whether it is covered by attorney-client or attorney work product privilege .
Newhouse, representing the city, Ruvalcaba and Young, said 95 percent of the material seized was outside the scope of the warrant. There were between 50 and 100 privileged documents taken by investigators from City Hall, he said.
Pounders denied a request from Deputy District Attorney Anthony Colannino for a protective order to keep certain documents seized from the city clerk’s office from being seen by other parties involved, including Newhouse, the attorney for the city.
Colannino said elected City Clerk Carmen Avalos’ attorney sent a letter to the District Attorney’s Office asking for copies of everything seized. In December Avalos was stripped of the bulk of her election duties by the City Council majority.
Newhouse protested the idea of a protective order for the documents, arguing that documents seized from City Hall are city property and that he, as a lawyer for the city, should be able to review them.
Newhouse called Avalos’ request “an attempt to obtain city documents that she is not entitled to,” noting Avalos also sought material removed from the home of South Gate City Attorney Salvador Alva and others.
Newhouse told the MetNews Avalos and the city are currently involved in a lawsuit and her request for these documents is an attempt by her lawyers to get information “she has no right to see.”
The city has sued Avalos, alleging that she approved recall petitions against the council majority after the Nov. 21 deadline for submitting them.
An earlier set of recall petitions was delivered to the council several months ago when Avalos appeared in good standing with the council majority. But she accused the city attorney of grabbing the petitions during a council meeting and leaving with them before they could be properly filed.
Colannino disagreed that Avalos, whose office was searched, was trying to get privileged information, arguing that as a searched party she was only trying to get a copy of what was seized. Colannino said he was under the impression that everyone who was searched was represented at the first hearing on the seized material, and he requested the protective order only after he realized Avalos was not represented.
“I didn’t want someone else’s materials in someone else’s hand,” Colannino said.
Pounders agreed there would be no point to issuing a protective order now since Newhouse, the lawyer for the city, had already reviewed the documents taken from the city clerk’s office.
“It’s almost like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted,” Pounders said.
Newhouse said he would send copies of the documents removed from the city clerk’s office to Beltran & Medina, the law firm which is representing Avalos, but was not present at Friday’s hearing.
The attorneys objecting to the unsealing of the seized material will return to Pounders’ courtroom next month for a status conference to discuss how to deal with computer hard drives, disks, laptops and other electronic material.
All of the computers in the downtown office of Albright, Yee & Schmit were seized by investigators and the District Attorney’s Office is in the process of copying their hard drives, Moor of Munger, Tolles said. Numerous computers and personal laptops were also seized from City Hall and private residences, Newhouse said. All of the hard drives that were seized will be copied and returned to the petitioners sometime this week, Colannino said.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company