Turmoil Wracks Los Angeles County Bar Association

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Los Angeles County Bar Association may throw out what it calls a “tainted” nomination of new officers and trustees and go through the disputed process again, a state judge ruled Tuesday.

But county Bar members denied likely election victories by the Bar’s actions say they will still press their lawsuit against the do-over, or run for office again if they must.

The objectors’ 26-page lawsuit, filed Monday, claims that a minority of the county Bar’s governing board “was dissatisfied with the results of a duly conducted election” in February, and so, through parliamentary maneuvering and a month-long investigation by outside counsel, they “proceeded to nullify the results and are proceeding with a new election … so that they can enable the election of their own slate of officers and trustees.”

Led by Susan J. Booth, a Holland & Knight partner selected initially for a trustee position, the plaintiffs asked the Superior Court “to have the results of the original election confirmed, to have the new election proceedings enjoined and invalidated, and to declare the rights and duties of the parties under California law and LACBA [L.A. County Bar] bylaws.”

The other plaintiffs are Philip H. Lam and Tamila C. Jensen, previously chosen for vice president posts; current trustees William L. Winslow and Edwin C. Summers III; and former association President Harry L. Hathaway.

But the Bar association and some of its current leaders say the February process to nominate new officers and trustees “was compromised by rampant breaches of confidentiality” in the nominating process, which is supposed to be secret to prevent politicking.

When those allegations arose, a number of the bar’s 28 trustees recused themselves from deciding election-related issues. The remaining 11 non-recused members then voted to create a replacement nominating committee.

In an 8-page opposition pleading filed Tuesday, the Bar association said that ordering it “to reinstate these prior nominees would undermine the integrity of LACBA and its rules.” Preventing a new election “would condone the wrongful conduct” that tainted the first, the Bar said.

Superior Court Judge James Chalfant on Tuesday declined to impose a temporary restraining order against the Bar, according to the Bar’s general counsel W. Clark Brown, but set a hearing for June 13, two days before balloting will begin for contested races.

Chalfant also held that no election had yet taken place, according to a newspaper account.

The unusual court action is the latest twist in a heated, multiyear dispute over how the 20,000-member Los Angeles Bar — one of the largest metropolitan Bar associations in the country — manages its operations and spends its money.

The leadership used to be collegial and collaborative, according to Brown. But over the past few years things have gotten “more adversarial.”

Others said tension has been rising over the Bar’s losing members and money. A once-healthy $10 million reserve fund had shrunk to $4 million, according to plaintiff Lam. Leaders of some of the practice-area sections of the association felt their groups were being shortchanged in favor of support for duplicative pro bono projects, some said.

Lam said he was also concerned about growing executive compensation. Late last year, the Bar’s CEO stepped down after seven years in the post, during which her salary nearly doubled to $375,000.

Those tensions erupted in the Bar election a year ago, when a slate of “change” candidates roundly defeated candidates put on the ballot by the association’s select, and secret, nominating committee.

In most years, no one runs against the committee’s nominees, who are in essence “elected” automatically without the need for members to cast ballots.

This year, the nominating committee proposed a slate of candidates on Feb. 28 that included two — plaintiffs Lam and Jensen — who had come onto the board as part of last year’s slate of outsiders.

The next day, two local legal-affairs newspapers ran stories that mentioned the association’s immediate past president had been pushing for one candidate to be nominated as president-elect. That lawyer, Michael K. Lindsey, had been last year’s nominating committee’s choice for the post, but he lost to the change candidate, Michael E. Meyer.

Apparently, those articles sparked concern that some members of the committee must have violated their confidentiality agreements, which led to the unusual recusals from the board of trustees and to a month-long investigation by a trio of lawyers working for the Bar pro bono.

Brown said Tuesday in an interview that the Bar’s concern was that the nominating process appeared to have been compromised. In its opposition pleading, the Bar cites several examples of outsiders seeming to know about or trying to influence the first nominating committee’s work.

“It’s not about the candidates. It’s about the process,” Brown said.

The plaintiffs’ attorney Joel Goldman, with Clark & Trevithick, did not respond to phone messages asking about the case.

But Lam said that “this Nominating Committee 2.0 is the result of a flawed and coercive process” that led to so many trustees being recused.

Both Lam and Brian Kabateck, who was the original nominating committee’s choice for president-elect, said they will file petitions to run for election this time if the new committee doesn’t nominate them.

Kabateck, who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he has heard from many people who are deeply disturbed by what has happened.

“It’s bizarre with a capital B,” he said.

The replacement nominating panel is expected announce its slate of candidates by Friday. If candidates file to run against them, the balloting will begin June 15. New officers and trustees should take office July 1.

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