Capitol Alert

Former Sen. Joe Dunn sues California Bar for firing him

Former Sen. Joe Dunn was given a 30-day termination notice by the State Bar of California, where he has been executive director since 2010. He is suing to be reinstated.
Former Sen. Joe Dunn was given a 30-day termination notice by the State Bar of California, where he has been executive director since 2010. He is suing to be reinstated. Sacramento Bee file

Former Democratic state Sen. Joe Dunn is suing his former employer, the State Bar of California, alleging that the bar’s board wrongfully fired him as executive director after he reported illegal activities and ethical breaches by high-ranking officials in the quasi-governmental agency.

The State Bar, which is tasked with certifying lawyers and disciplining them in cases of illegal or unethical conduct, announced Thursday that it had parted ways with Dunn. The separation, “pursuant to his employment contract,” gives Dunn 30 days’ notice. The bar’s board of trustees directed President Craig Holden and Deputy Executive Director Robert Hawley to take over Dunn’s former duties.

Dunn’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, said his client is seeking unspecified damages and wants his job back. “Beyond that, we want all the unethical and corrupt activity rectified,” said Geragos, whose past clients have included Michael Jackson, Sen. Ron Calderon, actress Winona Ryder, Modesto politician Gary Condit and convicted killer Scott Peterson.

State Bar spokeswoman Laura Ernde said she had no comment on Dunn’s suit, which was filed in Los Angeles on Thursday.

While bar officials have said little, Dunn’s complaint said that employees under State Bar Chief Trial Counsel Jayne Kim’s direction unlawfully altered case backlog reports released to the board of trustees and the public.

“This was done to benefit Ms. Kim in her upcoming evaluation and to fraudulently inflate the productivity of her office,” Dunn’s complaint contends, calling her conduct “shockingly rampant.”

Dunn alleges that Kim also failed to crack down on a form of legal fraud that exploits the immigrant communities, despite legislative pressure for her to act.

Once Kim learned that Dunn and other bar employees had discovered the alleged improprieties, she filed a complaint against them with the board of trustees, according to the lawsuit. In the suit, Dunn said he has never seen a summary of the complaint.

The State Bar launched an internal investigation. The board brought in an outside law firm, the lawsuit says, even though a retired Supreme Court justice had offered to do the work for free.

Three attorneys on that investigative team each billed the bar $800 per hour, the suit states, estimating “current billable hours for the services rendered by that private firm likely exceeds $300,000.”

After the outside attorneys were hired, Dunn learned that the lead investigator had worked with board Trustee Miriam Krinsky for 20 years, developing “a close personal and professional relationship,” according to the suit. The relationship wasn’t disclosed when Krinsky recommended retaining the firm or when the board weighed candidates for the job, it said.

As Dunn and other State Bar employees brought forward their concerns, they were targeted “with varying degrees of discipline and retaliation” for speaking up, according to the court complaint.

Meanwhile, attorney Craig Holden became State Bar president and, the court complaint states, “told several people he was determined ‘to do something about Dunn.’”

The threat, though, contradicted the board’s awarding Dunn annual bonuses and its recent three-year extension of his contract, according to the lawsuit. Now that Holden has assumed co-executive standing with Dunn’s ouster, he has authority “unprecedented in the history of the State Bar,” the lawsuit contends.

Geragos said, “When Holden became the new president, he decided to go from president to jockeying to become executive director, too.”

Last Friday, at 5 p.m. while Dunn was giving a speech, he received a termination letter from Holden, the court complaint says. “The termination letter demanded that Senator Dunn not speak with the press or the public if he desired to negotiate a ‘mutually acceptable (severance) agreement,’” the lawsuit states.

Geragos said that he will ask a judge to expedite the case, “so that we can have Joe restored to his position in about 30 days.”

Dunn’s résumé includes his time in the state Senate from 1998 to 2006, his last two years in office as chair of the upper chamber’s Judiciary Committee. After an unsuccessful run for state controller, Dunn was executive director of the California Medical Association before taking the State Bar job.

A lawyer, Dunn also co-founded The Senators (Ret.) Firm LLP, with former Senate colleague Martha Escutia. The Santa Ana-based law firm specializes in representing sexual-abuse victims and product liability cases.

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.