LOS ANGELES - Today, the California Supreme Court affirmed the public's right to access government billing records with private law firms, overturning a previous appeals court ruling in a California Public Records Act (CPRA) case brought against Los Angeles County.
L.A. County should now release the invoices for all closed cases, so that the public can learn how much taxpayer money is going to private lawyers to defend the county and its employees, including the many cases against the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for brutality against inmates in the county jails.
In 2013, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) and an advocate for transparency in local government, Eric Preven, represented by attorneys from the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and the ACLU SoCal, sued the county demanding that it and the Office of County Counsel release invoices detailing the amounts of money billed by private law firms in lawsuits filed against the sheriff’s department and its personnel. The lawsuit, ACLU/Preven v. Los Angeles County, came after county counsel denied several CPRA requests for the documents that list the amounts billed by private attorneys, which are paid by county taxpayers.
"The court's decision protects the public's access to information and reinforces what the Public Records Act was designed to do," said Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel and Manheim Family attorney for First Amendment Rights at the ACLU SoCal.
In the opinion the court rejected the county's argument that attorney-client privilege extends to government invoices with private legal counsel in closed cases, writing that "contents of an invoice are privileged only if they either communicate information for the purpose of consultation or risk exposing information."
"We're pleased that the majority of the court adopted an interpretation that protects the public’s access to information documenting the large amount of money spent by government agencies on outside law firms," said Rochelle Wilcox, an attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine.
"I wanted to see the legal bills submitted to the county by private firms for the same reason one would review bills from a plumber or any other kind of contractor working for the county," said Preven. "It's about accountability."