Wednesday, May 8, 2019

County Counsel Suit Alleges Conspiracy in Legal Billings; Supes Approve $1.4M in Retro Payments, New Contract with Law Firm

Posted By on Wed, May 8, 2019 at 2:21 PM

Jeffrey Blanck - COUNTY OF HUMBOLDT
  • County of Humboldt
  • Jeffrey Blanck
The county’s head attorney has filed a civil lawsuit against two fellow top administrators, an outside attorney and her Bay Area-based law firm alleging they conspired against him when he tried to expose excessive billing practices.

According to Jefferey Blanck’s lawsuit, bills from Liebert Cassidy Whitmore “increased three-fold” from 2016 to 2018 — from $137,000 to $353,000 — due to Human Resources Director Lisa DeMatteo's practice of sending routine matters to the firm’s partner Suzanne Solomon, bypassing the county counsel’s office.

He gave as examples a more than $6,000 bill “to draft a simple termination letter” and $8,000 paid to handle an arbitration issue “over a $300 dispute.”

Blanck also alleges that County Administrative Officer Amy Nielsen allowed this to take place and that when he tried to bring those costs and an issue with the legitimacy of the firm’s contract to the board of supervisors, the defendants “orchestrated” his removal.

Blanck, who has been on paid administrative leave since March, is asking for an unspecified amount of damages in the legal action filed April 25, which states that he has suffered emotional distress and economic harm due to the defendants’ actions.

Meanwhile, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday retroactively approved $1.4 million in legal payments to Liebert Cassidy Whitmore dating back to 2008.  A staff report from DeMatteo’s office states that “due to administrative oversight” the county's agreement with the firm was never brought to the board but  instead was signed only by the former personnel director, although the services and payments continued for 11 years.

Passed without comment by the board as part of the consent agenda, the item also included a new contract — running from May 7 to June 30, 2020 — with a “maximum payable amount of $150,000” for services related to “labor negotiations, administrative proceedings and legal advice on special employment projects.”

According the 14-page listing of the firm’s $1.4 million in charges since 2008, the county has already paid Liebert Cassidy Whitmore nearly $200,000 this year.

The staff report states that, moving forward, “future litigation expenses will be authorized and detailed through individual retainer agreements” with the firm.

In an email to the Journal after the meeting, county spokesperson Sean Quincy said he could not comment on how the agenda item coincides with assertions made in Blanck’s lawsuit.

“Due to pending litigation, and in order to preserve the integrity of that process, the county will not discuss this issue in the press,” Quincy wrote. “However, the county is committed to operating in a transparent, fiscally responsible manner where the public's interest is at heart.”

Meanwhile, the board of supervisors voted unanimously in closed session to bring on the local firm Mitchell, Brisso, Delaney & Vrieze to handle Blanck’s case. Blanck is being represented by Cyndy Day-Wilson, the city of Eureka's former attorney.

A case management conference has been set for August.
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Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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