While Fresno County Superior Court officials won’t say how much it cost to investigate county probation Chief Rick Chavez, The Bee has learned that the court spent more than $175,000 for legal bills to conduct the five-month-long inquiry.
That amount, on top of the $188,000 spent by Fresno County on the matter, in opposing the court’s efforts, means the investigation cost taxpayers about $365,000. The investigation ended last month with Chavez being retained after a 25-18 vote by Fresno County’s judges, who decided the accusations against Chavez didn’t merit his dismissal.
The monthslong controversy over Chavez pitted Fresno County supervisors and county officials against the court, and pushed supervisors to get Measure T on the Nov. 8 ballot. The measure would give supervisors and the county administrative officer the hiring and firing control over the probation chief, instead of the judges.
In an email, obtained by The Bee, presiding Judge Kimberly Gaab told her fellow judges the court spent $177,013 through Sept. 22.
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Gaab sent the email to fellow judges because “some of you asked about court’s legal costs incurred as a result of the investigation and legal analysis surrounding the CPO (chief probation officer) matter.”
The Superior Court employed the Bay Area law firm Wiley Price & Radulovich for the investigation and legal counsel. In the email, Gaab confirmed the billing rate as $265 to $285 per hour.
Chavez was placed on administrative leave in April and county officials weren’t advised, starting a showdown after supervisors believed the investigation was lasting too long and deteriorating morale in the probation department.
The court’s costs may not end soon. Lawyer Barry Bennett, who represents Chavez, said he filed a legal claim against Fresno County Superior Court earlier this month. The claim says the court failed to give Chavez due process, damaged his reputation and inflicted intentional/negligent emotional distress. The claim names Fresno County Superior Court, as well as individual judges, including Gaab, last year’s presiding Judge Jonathan Conklin and other judges and court officials, Bennett said.
Court refuses requests
Fresno County Superior Court only accepts Public Records Act inquiries or requests seeking documents from the public by U.S. Mail or some form of written “snail mail” delivery.
During the process of The Bee trying to obtain billing records from the court, two letters were exchanged, adding several days to correspondence. Emails, fax and walk-in delivery were rejected as a form of delivery to seek records from the court.
The court’s managing research attorney, Dawn Annino, denied two requests for billing records from The Bee in the past month, one under the Public Records Act and a second citing California Rules of Court.
In one response, Annino suggests that the bills paid to the court’s law firm are not “reasonably segregable” from other court documents and would reveal important information about the investigation. And, she added, because the court may be subject to a lawsuit in the Chavez case, it isn’t required to turn over billing records.
Under California Rules of Court, Annino said, “nothing in these rules requires the disclosure of judicial records that are any of the following: records pertaining to pending or anticipated claims or litigation to which a judicial branch entity is a party or judicial branch personnel are parties, until the pending litigation or claim has been finally adjudicated or otherwise resolved.”
Annino also said on behalf of the court that it is exempt under the state Public Records Act, which Public Records Act attorneys say is true. But a section of the California Public Records Act says that billing is subject to disclosure for local government agencies and that rule led to the California Rule of Court, which contains no exemption for legal fees, said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association.
I don’t see anything in that where (billing) would fall under any of the exemptions.
Jim Ewert, general counsel, California Newspaper Publisher’s Association
Billing, he said, doesn’t reveal litigation strategies or other information that could be deemed prejudicial to the court or influence pending litigation.
“I don’t see anything in that where (billing) would fall under any of the exemptions and certainly not under pending litigation because it doesn’t reflect an analysis or strategy or any attorney work product document or anything that would be protected under the attorney-client privilege,” he said. “How much the court spent reveals nothing to the adversary.”
The fact that the billing information was contained in a brief email from Gaab “is the textbook definition of reasonably segregable,” said Ewert, who helped craft the court rule.
Lawyer Donald W. Cook, a lead attorney in a Public Records Act case in Los Angeles, argued that a government agency’s attorney billing information is available with redactions that can remove sensitive information. His case evolved into the California Rule of Court that Ewert helped develop.
What is paid in the name of taxpayers “is not confidential and has never been confidential,” Cook said. “It goes to the core issue of importance: how are entities spending taxpayer money and what amounts.”
Judges, Cook said, should know better.
“It is so fundamental to a public’s right to know, and you would think that a court being a little closer to the ground on legal principles would know that.”
County quickly responds
Fresno County’s response to The Bee’s request was much quicker.
Asked to provide financial documents related to the Chavez investigation, Fresno County responded verbally in a phone call and email.
Fresno County officials also followed up with an email with redacted billing documents from a law firm the county hired, and the legal waiver signed by Chavez in which the county paid him $100,000 in exchange for not suing the county.
They wasted a lot of money on this.
Buddy Mendes, Fresno County supervisors’ board chairman
In addition, the county paid a law firm $30,000 to conduct its own investigation during the court’s investigation of Chavez, which was redacted to show the amounts paid. The county also was responsible for paying five months of Chavez’s $139,020 annual salary, about $58,000.
Fresno County Board of Supervisors’ chairman said the courts should act no differently than the county.
“They wasted a lot of money on this,” Buddy Mendes said. “It literally stinks. It’s like everybody else has to be open and transparent and they are kind of like, ‘Huh, us?’ ”
Fresno County voters will decide whether to remove the judges from jurisdiction over the probation chief’s position.
Under existing state law, the judges have the power to hire and fire the chief, but the county oversees daily operations and pays the salary of the probation chief. The court does not pay any part of Chavez’s salary, but oversees his interaction in such things as the Drug Court and Behavioral Health Court.
Measure T changing supervision of the Fresno County probation chief is on the Nov. 8 election ballot.
As the investigation continued, Fresno County supervisors grew increasingly concerned that Chavez was being improperly investigated because the initial investigative report failed to reveal any termination-worthy offenses.
Chavez’s administrative leave triggered the county to seek a change in the charter. If approved, the probation chief would be under the supervision of the county in consultation with the judges. Measure T is on the Fresno County election ballot on Nov. 8.