Judge William Dato said it best: "This is a most unusual case." Dato was being asked to decide if key records for an ongoing grand jury inquiry could be used in its investigation.
The hearing involved the City of Imperial Beach squaring off against the County of San Diego and the San Diego County Civil Grand Jury.
Attorney Steven Boehmer argued that the billing records for attorneys working for Imperial Beach shouldn’t be released to the grand jury. Normally anything the grand jury does is secret until it finishes its investigation. However, a temporary restraining order from Boehmer’s firm provided a glimpse into what the jury was curious about and why the firm of McDougal, Love, Eckis Boehmer and Foley fought to keep the legal bills out of the grand jury’s hands.
Attorney Boehmer based his arguments on the attorney-client privilege. He felt the legal bills with detailed narratives on the services the firm provided were protected. Boehmer’s firm deals primarily with redevelopment issues for the city.
Opposing him was Deborah McCarthy from the office of San Diego’s County Counsel. Her agency had been pulled into the dispute after the county auditor had requested the bills on behalf of the grand jury.
The jury had asked for the auditor's help in evaluating legal bills the City of Imperial Beach was paying.
Auditor Tatiana Foster testified she received the records after requesting them from the city.
According to Imperial Beach Administrative Services Director Kathleen Von Achen, she had instructed a temporary employee to just give the auditor the basic bill and a coded description of the legal services, nothing more.
The code describes generally what the law firm was doing for the money.
But as the testimony revealed, the employee provided the entire set of books for the grand jury.
The city wanted the records back and didn’t want the grand jury to be able to use them in any investigation.
That’s why the TRO was filed.
McCarthy would argue that the grand jury had every right to review the records, how else would they have a full understanding of exactly what was going on. While some details are sketchy, it was clear from the testimony from both sides they were talking about a large sum—25 million dollars. Also revealed was the probable focus of the grand jury’s inquiry -- illegal use of redevelopment funds.
Also revealed in testimony was another law firm the city used on other matters did provide codes with detailed explanations of charges. The bills from McDougal, Love, Eckis, Boehmer and Foley didn’t provide as much information as this other law firm.
County counsel argued that the detailed narratives with the bills were needed to understand what had happened to the money.
In his ruling Judge Dato said the temporary Imperial Beach employee was not provided adequate guidance in the release of the records. In addition, he made clear that for the grand jury to do its job, it needed to be able to review the legal bills in their entirety.
In the audience observing the hearing was the San Diego County Grand Jury. Team 10 asked the jurors what would happen next?
They were tight lipped, only saying they may be getting back to us. When Attorney Boehmer was asked if he would appeal the Judge’s ruling, he said no decision had been made. He appeared to be very upset.