By Susan Shelley, LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS
March 10, 2021
There are political scandals, and there are corruption scandals, and then there’s the level of scandal that becomes a movie starring Jack Nicholson.
Hollywood may have to cut a big check to screenwriter Robert Towne and get director Roman Polanski on a Zoom call to tell the story. Watch for the big scene where Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer can’t recall anything about how attorneys connected to his office represented both sides of a lawsuit over the failed billing system at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a case that ended in a highly questionable settlement, an FBI investigation, and a growing list of sanctions and fines.
Advocacy group Consumer Watchdog has called for the release of the videotape of a deposition Feuer gave in the city’s lawsuit against PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm that was hired to modernize the LADWP’s billing system. “He [Feuer] recited, ‘I don’t recall’ over 60 times,” according to a statement posted on the organization’s website on January 23 that accused Feuer of “withholding the video tape of the deposition from the public because it would no-doubt show the insincerity on the face of a man notorious for his micromanagement.”
The video of the deposition is “safely locked in a court reporter’s cabinet” because Feuer dismissed the city’s case against PwC in September 2019. Feuer said it was too hard to gather evidence because some of the lawyers who were witnesses in the case were invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refusing to testify.
To start at the beginning, the story opens in 2013 when the LADWP switched to a new billing system and hundreds of thousands of L.A. residents received insanely high water bills, or delayed bills, or no bills, and it was nearly impossible to reach a customer service representative.
One specific aggrieved ratepayer by the name of Antwon Jones became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed in 2015 and settled in 2017. The settlement was called into question in 2019, when PricewaterhouseCoopers was defending itself from a lawsuit brought by the city over the billing system debacle.
PwC accused City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office of secretly controlling the outcome of the class-action suit, digging up evidence that the attorney representing Antwon Jones and LADWP ratepayers had been retained by Feuer’s office at around the same time he represented the ratepayers. A few months later, the FBI raided the city attorney’s office and the LADWP.
Are you following this? The middle of these movies can lose you if you step out for popcorn. The lawyer representing you, the ratepayer, had a conflict of interest because he also worked for the city that you, the ratepayer, were suing. Actually, there were a few lawyers involved in this, but Robert Towne would probably consolidate them into one character for dramatic simplicity.
Antwon Jones has recently filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles alleging violation of civil rights and waste of taxpayer funds. The lawsuit says the city and others used Jones as an “unwitting pawn” to reach a settlement that “was the product of collusion and a fraud on the court.” Jones’ lawsuit asks the court to stop the city and Feuer from “illegally expending and wasting more taxpayer funds to conceal and cover up their misconduct.”
Feuer released a statement saying, “I’ve always acted with complete integrity, and always will. Any claim that even remotely suggests otherwise is not only absolutely false, it’s malicious.”
Maybe Robert Towne can punch that up a little.
The 2017 settlement included about $11.9 million in attorney’s fees split up between some of the characters that Towne will edit out, and this week, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered one of those characters to pay back $1.65 million in fees he was paid in the case. The attorney was also ordered to pay $116,000 in sanctions and fined $44,000 for contempt of court.
In October, Feuer’s office was hit with a $2.5 million fine by the same judge for “serious abuse of discovery by the city and its counsel,” lawyer-speak for hiding evidence from the court, in the LADWP case.
Feuer’s running for mayor in 2022.
It’s Chinatown. Don’t forget.
Susan Shelley is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group. [email protected] Twitter: @Susan_Shelley