Los Angeles City Attorney, Carmen Trutanich, has been named in court papers as the leading force behind what has been described as ‘extortion’ for using the ‘threat of criminal prosecution’ to obtain settlements in civil cases.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Metropolitan News Enterprise, it appears that Trutanich filed both criminal and civil cases against individuals and their corporations, and then offered to ‘drop’ the criminal case if a sufficiently high sum of money were paid to settle his civil claims.
The shocking allegations have been made by Century City attorneys Stephen Morgan and Anthony Salernoon behalf of their client, Mark Allen Denny. In order to protect their client from alleged ‘extortion’ by Trutanich, Morgan and Salerno filed a 17-page motion outlining the alleged extortion scheme and calling for Trutanich and the City Attorney’s Office to be disqualified from prosecuting the cases against Denny and his corporation.
The Los Angeles Dragnet blog obtained a copy of the motion, set for hearing on October 20, 2011 before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Georgina Rizk. The motion states that Trutanich’s alleged ‘extortion’ scheme violates ethical standards established by the Supreme Court in the 2006 case of Flatley v. Mauro, and codified under California Rule of Professional Conduct 5-100(A) which states that ‘A member shall not threaten to present criminal, administrative, or disciplinary charges to obtain an advantage in a civil dispute.’
‘He’s basically charging you with a crime with one hand, and then selling you a get out of jail card with the other’ is the way that a criminal defense attorney who spoke on condition on anonymity told the Dragnet, describing Trutanich’s scheme of offering to ‘drop’ criminal charges if a sufficiently high sum of money is offered by the accused to settle a civil case. ‘You don’t even get a chance to argue the merits of either case,’ the attorney stated, ‘It’s a shakedown under the color of authority, and it’s an abuse of process, it’s flat out wrong.’ He said.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the extortion accusation is that it has taken so long for anyone to legally and ethically challenge Trutanich’s apparent willingness to use the threat of criminal prosecution and incarceration to try to get his way.
History of Threats
Some might well say that Trutanich has made the threat of criminal proceedings the hallmark of his tenure as City Attorney. It started within days of his taking office with his ‘bombshell’ allegations that there were ‘criminal aspects’ to the manner in which AEG hosted the Michael Jackson memorial at the Staples Center. A claim that was apparently baseless, with Trutanich subsequently accepting a ‘donation’ of Lady Gaga tickets from AEG.
Trutanich also threatened to arrest Councilmember Jan Perry and Dept. of Building and Safety workers who wanted to issue AEG with permits for billboards at the Regency Cinema complex at LA Live. The billboard permits were duly issued, the billboards were erected, and no arrests were made by Trutanich or anyone else.
Last year, Trutanich threatened to send a group of students engaged in a political protest in favor of the Dream Act to jail for a year, leading to accusations that he was a ‘bully,’ ‘thug,’ and ‘tyrant.’ Trutanich was apparently incapable of proving that the students were ‘professional protesters’ as had been claimed, and the charges against the protesters were dropped.
When Judge Rizk hears the motion there will likely be a full briefing not only Trutanich’s propensity to use the threat of criminal proceedings in what appears to be an improper manner, but also on the lack of written policies and procedures to “wall off” the handling of criminal cases from civil cases.
Lack of Protocol and Procedure
Judge Rizk may be disturbed to learn that, in 2009 Trutanich requested and was supplied with editable copies of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Legal Policies Manual and Special Directives. Those documents establish uniform practices and policies in the prosecution cases generally, and establishes protocols to avoid the conflicts of interest apparent in the Denny case as well as other cases where parallel civil and criminal actions are pursued. However, it is believed that Trutanich has neither used the materials he requested, nor implemented any comparable policies or procedures.
Equally disturbing is the way that Trutanich apparently regards these million dollar settlements as a way of funding his office. The Denny case is one of a number of cases Trutanich has brought against the billboard industry as part of his citywide ban on unpermitted advertising signs. The cases promise to net Trutanich millions of dollars in civil damages from businesses that took advantage of LA’s lax, arbitrary and inconsistent application of its own laws in the years preceding the Trutanich administration.
BillboardGate Scandal likely to be raised
Ironically, Trutanich himself seemingly violated his own citywide ban on unpermitted off-site billboards. For two years since becoming City Attorney, Trutanich had unpermitted off-site signs outside his former campaign headquarters on Ventura Blvd. The BillboardGate scandal resulted in Trutanich recently removing the signs without penalty. Trutanich’s response to the allegation that he violated his own law was to issue a statement that ‘the determination of the signs’ legality is not one that is made by his office,’ a curious statement given that Trutanich seemingly has no difficulty determining the legality or otherwise of other signs.
Financial motives may threaten future ability to protect consumers.
Many see Trutanich’s pursuit of the millions of dollars in civil penalties that his office is allowed to take as the prime motivation for his ‘enforcement’ of billboard laws. The use by Trutanich of Business & Professions Code 17200 and 17500 (Unfair Competition and False Advertising Acts) in these cases has become a source of much needed revenue for Trutanich’s cash strapped office. Trutanich’s alleged ‘extortion’ raises the question as to whether Trutanich’s actions could result in the removal of these powers by the legislature, if the claims made by Morgan and Salerno are found to be true.
Such action by the legislature is not without precedent. Indeed, when the infamous Trevor Law Group was found to have abused the private right of attorneys to pursue False Advertising claims, the legislature responded by stripping away the right to recover lucrative civil penalties from private attorneys, leaving only government agencies with the right to recover million dollar penalties. The Trevor Law Group’s pursuit of thousands of false advertising claims was nothing more than an unlawful and unethical shakedown of small businesses. Some may see Trutanich’s actions as differing little from the unethical practices of the Trevor Law Group especially where there appears to be a lack of procedure and protocol to ensure that criminal prosecutions are not being used to obtain civil settlements.
Attempted misappropriation of settlement check belies abuse
Trutanich himself has done little to disabuse the suggestion that he is openly violating the considerable powers vested in government agencies in the pursuit of 17200/17500 cases. Trutanich recently secured a $4M ‘settlement’ of such a case against CBS Outdoor. That case netted Trutanich’s office a fifty percent share of the $4M settlement, money that can only be used to fund further investigation and enforcement of consumer protection laws. However, Trutanich personally took custody of a $2M of the ‘settlement’ and tried to divert it to his political ally, Sheriff Lee Baca, under the pretext that it should be used to fund the clearance of a rape kit backlog. Not only was that diversion improper, but at there was no actual backlog of rape kits.
Clearly more is at stake in the Denny case than whether Trutanich has engaged in the alleged ‘extortion.’ When his conduct in the Denny case is viewed together with the way Trutanich has freely threatened to incarcerate individuals on other occasions, and the way that he has tried to treat the proceeds of case ‘settlements’ as a source of revenue as well as political payback, Judge Rizk should have ample cause and little hesitation in granting the motion to disqualify Trutanich and his office from any further prosecution of the Denny case. The larger question of whether Trutanich should be allowed to continue to use his proscutorial powers to induce civil case settlements will likely be decided based on Judge Rizk’s ruling.
The Met News reported that an unnamed spokesperson for Trutanich’s office commented that ‘our office believes this is a specious motion and we anticipate filing a response soon.’ Many expect the ‘response’ to be similar to the recent Martin Declaration and amount to no more than a stalling tactic.