Politics & Government

The State Worker: California prison officials lose fight with union over outsourcing

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

A $6 million contract between California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and a private law firm broke the law last year, according to a ruling released this week by the state’s civil service system watchdog.

The State Personnel Board’s decision marks the second time the prison agency has been dinged for hiring Sacramento-based Williams & Associates to defend it against inmate lawsuits. Last year the board ruled against a similar agreement, dubbed “Williams I,” a three-year, $5 million deal that expired – in theory, anyway – in the summer of 2012.

But instead of moving the work back to state attorneys as the board directed, Corrections inked what is now called “Williams II,” the $6 million contract that expires – in theory, anyway – in 2015. The board struck that second contract down with the decision released on Tuesday.

By law, Justice Department lawyers are supposed to defend the state in prison litigation, but Attorney General Kamala Harris said that years of budget cutbacks and furloughs created a shortage of qualified attorneys. Until this year, she sent inmate lawsuits back to Corrections because she didn’t have staff to take them.

Prison officials said they had neither the bodies nor the in-house expertise to handle the cases, nor the money to hire more civil service attorneys. Besides, they reasoned, the litigation is temporary; why not hire temps? Enter Sacramento-based attorney Kathleen Williams’ firm.

The five-member Personnel Board said Corrections “failed to demonstrate that the contracted services cannot be performed satisfactorily by civil services employees.”

Peter Flores, president of the state attorneys’ union that fought the agreements, said, “It is ironic that they continue to claim that they lack the resources to do the work that is the subject of these contracts, yet seem to have no shortage of attorneys to defend these outsourcing challenges.”

The $11 million allotted for Williams I and II would pay a year’s salary for 118 attorneys earning the average state wage of $93,000.

Still, you could argue outsourcing makes sense. Hire a government lawyer or office tech or scientist, whomever, and it’s potentially a lifetime marriage with union and civil service protections, pension and health benefit costs all baked in.

What now? Well, the law says illegal contracts must be terminated shortly after the board rules, but don’t be surprised if Corrections takes the case to court, hoping to get the ruling overturned. That probably keeps the contract in place while the litigation plays out, because the department would argue that dumping the Williams firm could harm the state’s defense.

Department spokesman Jeffrey Callison wouldn’t commit. “Our legal office is reviewing the decision and examining the options,” he said in an email.

But the department already has a court case pending for Williams I. There’s no reason to think it won’t do that again.

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