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Jon Ortiz

State Worker: Corrections officials again appeal for private lawyers to handle litigation

Published: Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 - 7:16 pm

Ding! Ding! Ding!

That's the bell sounding again in the never-ending fight between unions and state government over the millions of dollars departments spend every year on contracting for services.

The latest round touches off this morning in the State Personnel Board's Capitol Mall auditorium. The debate: Whether a $6 million contract with a private law firm to handle prison lawsuit defense is legal.

By law, Justice Department lawyers usually are supposed to handle that kind of litigation. Attorney General Kamala Harris, representing the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, contends in papers filed with the board that years of budget cutbacks triggered a shortage of qualified government attorneys. Until last January, she was sending cases back to Corrections because she didn't have staff to take them. Prison officials contracted the work.

The lawyers union says the state mismanaged its attorney corps, creating the shortages.

If the lack of lawyers is really that severe, union attorney Patrick Whalen wrote in a filing to the board, "(Corrections) should immediately begin hiring attorneys so that they can begin to take over the workload that is currently being outsourced."

In this case, you're talking about state attorneys earning up to $50 an hour vs. private attorneys who bill at a much higher rate.

The counterpunch to that argument, however, is that the higher costs are offset by the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of contract help. Hire a civil service worker, and it's potentially a lifetime deal, with pension and health benefits figured in.

The contract slugfest this morning is the sequel to a fight the Personnel Board settled last year over a three-year $5 million agreement with the same law firm, Williams & Associates, for the same services. It expired in mid-2012, a few weeks after the five-member board said the deal broke a law that requiring that state workers do state work. (Ex- ceptions: an emergency, lack of skill in the civil service corps or clear cost savings.)

Prison officials were supposed to move the work back to Justice lawyers.

Instead, they signed the $6 million deal with Williams to take effect just six weeks after the board ruled against the first contract.

The union fought the second contract on the same grounds and won again. Corrections officials asked for reconsideration. Hence this morning's battle.

"The only substantive difference between the two contracts is that the outside law firm is now getting more money for handling less work," union lawyer Whalen said in his brief.

With the budget shored up, Harris has started taking inmate complaint defense cases. But since litigation can take years to resolve, Corrections officials argue Williams should continue its contract work to follow its cases through.

That's the work the union argues the firm wasn't supposed to get in the first place.

Call The Bee's Jon Ortiz, (916) 321-1043. Read his blog, The State Worker, at blogs.sacbee.com/the_state_worker.

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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Note: The State Worker blog switched blog platforms in October 2013. All posts after the switch are found here. Older posts are available using the list below.


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