Monday, October 12, 2009

Michelle Fort-Merrill sends SDCOE work to her husband, while Bonnie Dumanis charges 5 county officials with conflict of interest

What's going on, Bonnie Dumanis? It sure seems that politics controls your decisions about charging people with crimes. You appear to be blind to conflicts of interest when your cronies are guilty.

And it seems that the California Supreme Court disagrees with your charges against 5 county officials.

It seems that BBK partner Woody Merrill is getting some advantages due to his wife's position at San Diego County Office of Education.

Related link: The Schoolhouse Lawyer Who Helped Hire His Overseer (March 2, 2009)

When Wife Advises, Husband’s Firm Almost Always Picked
Michele Fort-Merrill attends a meeting at the County Office of Education. Photo: Sam Hodgson
Monday, Oct. 12, 2009

When Michele Fort-Merrill advises her boss that the San Diego County Office of Education should look to outsiders for legal help, it is almost guaranteed that the work will go to her husband's firm, a analysis has found.

As executive director of human resources, Fort-Merrill advises the county superintendent whether to retain attorneys for personnel issues. She does not choose which firm to employ, but over the past four years, those cases have gone almost exclusively to Best, Best & Krieger, which employs her husband, William Merrill. Fort-Merrill has a financial interest in the firm of more than $100,000 annually through his income, according to her economic disclosure forms...

But a major question was left unanswered: How likely it is that legal business will go to BB&K and to William Merrill specifically if Fort-Merrill advises hiring an outside attorney for a personnel case. The new numbers, culled from public records by, help shed light on that key question about the relationship. They show it is almost inevitable that personnel cases will go to BB&K, which accounted for 99 percent of the hours attorneys billed for such work since 2005.

That deepens concerns among ethicists about Fort-Merrill giving advice on whether to get legal help...

Public officials are generally barred under California law from making or helping to make government decisions in which they or their spouse have a financial interest. Being involved in the decision can include advising the decision maker.

"The issue is quite simple -- as a public official you shouldn't make decisions based on your financial gain," said Jessica Levinson, director of political reform at the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps people participate in their government. "Whether that's her motivation, I can't speak to. But she is financially gaining based on decisions she's making in her professional capacity."

BB&K began receiving almost all of the County Office legal work related to personnel cases four years ago. Its attorneys have billed $234,000 over that time for personnel cases, which averages to $58,500 annually, the analysis found. The previous firm had billed an average of $17,100 annually in the prior seven years. BB&K both logged more hours and charged slightly more.

BB&K began to be used almost exclusively for personnel cases in July 2005, the same time that Fort-Merrill became executive director of human resources...

Before 2005, the County Office usually turned to Parham & Rajcic, a Laguna Hills firm, to handle cases related to employees. The attorney it often used, Mark Bresee, left Parham in February 2005 for the Orange County Department of Education.

A few months later, the San Diego County Office of Education started sending its personnel cases to BB&K...

BB&K's share of the overall legal business at the County Office of Education has grown over time, from 35 percent in 2000 to 87 percent in 2008...Cases referred by Fort-Merrill's department made up at least 25 percent of its business from 2005 to 2008...

While personnel cases almost always go to BB&K, Merrill himself made up only 7 percent of the attorneys' billing, according to the analysis. But it is unclear whether Merrill and his wife benefit solely from business that goes directly to him as an individual attorney or from BB&K business in general.

Merrill is listed on the firm's website as a partner, a term historically meaning that an employee earns a share of the firm's profits. He filed an economic disclosure form two years ago that listed a partnership in the firm valued between $100,001 and $1 million...

Fort-Merrill's role has been questioned by a former County Office employee, Rodger Hartnett...

But ethicists and attorneys not associated with the case said it was problematic for Fort-Merrill to advise the superintendent on personnel cases that could end up going to her husband or his firm. Some said the new revelations that BB&K is almost always used for those matters only increased their concern.

"She's got a problem. It's an untenable position to be in, and a good law firm would tell her that," said Bob Fellmeth, a professor of public interest law at the University of San Diego.

Derek Cressman, western states regional director for the nonpartisan watchdog group California Common Cause, said he didn't know whether the connection was illegal, but said it raised the appearance that Fort-Merrill was "bettering herself." He said, "If I were a public official that wanted to give voters confidence that I was making decisions based on the public interest, I wouldn't be doing what she is doing."...

"The fact that there is someone in between saying 'yes' and 'no' doesn't mean that this is all fine and dandy," Levinson said. Using the firm on other cases before Fort-Merrill started working "decreases any appearance of impropriety to a certain extent," she said, but does not eliminate the problem...

Government employees and elected officials are generally supposed to recuse themselves from government decisions that could impact their finances, said Roman Porter, executive director of the state Fair Political Practices Commission...

Another code prohibits public officials from having a financial stake in the contracts they make, barring them from preliminary discussions, planning or other involvement...

"However devious and winding the chain may be which connects the officer with the forbidden contract, if it can be followed and the connection can be made, the contract is void," states a 1934 court ruling cited in the guidelines.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey wasn’t Marty Emerald a news 10 investigative reporter?
Wasn’t District 7 counsel member Marty Emerald the same person who had a great reporter fired? What was his name? Was it Tom Jensen the best channel 10 News special reporter?

Why would Marty Emerald have him fired?

Because Tom Jensen did a SPECIAL EDUCATION REPORT.

Ironically many parents of special education students contacted channel 10 news and Marty Emerald. Assistants told the parents that Marty did not want to do reports on special education. Why not?

As it turns out Marty Emerald herself has a special education child. Yes her child is placed in an exclusive, PRIVATE SCHOOL at taxpayers’ expense. I wonder if Marty Emerald’s kid also gets a limousine to school? At taxpayers expense of course.

Yes there are many people out there like Marty Emerald who will back stab special education children and their parents. While they make special arrangements with public schools to get the Royal treatment for their own kids.