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Legal Aid Group Must Comply With Subpoena

WASHINGTON (CN) - A California legal aid group accused of misusing government grant money must release its financial records, a federal judge ruled, upholding a subpoena.

After receiving the subpoena from the Office of the Inspector General of the Legal Services Corp., California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) argued that much of the information requested is irrelevant, unduly burdensome and unreasonable

The group, which provides a wide range of free legal assistance and representation to low-income California communities, is under investigation for violating the Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act by focusing its resources on broad-based politically impacting litigation, and on farm worker and Latino issues to the detriment of other underserved populations.

Prosecutors say it also provided legal assistance on fee-generating cases and for cases without an identifiable client.

Congress reported these actions to the Office of Inspector General in 2005. A year later, the group "received about $6.8 million, representing roughly sixty percent of its $11.2 million budget, in LSC [Legal Services Corp.] grants," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan wrote.

When the nonprofit LSC served an administrative request to access relevant materials, the California program withheld and redacted all client names and other client-identifying information, asserting attorney-client privilege. The information it did submit still prompted LSC to report "substantial evidence that CRLA violated federal law by: soliciting clients; working a fee-generating case; requesting attorney fees; and associating CRLA with political activities."

LSC then subpoenaed the group for the remaining information, and Judge Sullivan refused to quash the demand Monday.

"As a threshold matter, the court concludes that California professional responsibility rules do not prohibit disclosure of the requested information and, in addition, that state privileges do not apply to the subpoena," he wrote. "The court further concludes that the subpoena. Is enforceable because the information requested is reasonably relevant to a legitimate lawful purpose and because compliance with the subpoena is not unduly burdensome."

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