Monday, April 25, 2011

Grand jury criticizes Riverside County's legal defense contract process

11:13 PM PDT on Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County supervisors failed to follow their own policies when awarding a new criminal defense contract earlier this year, a newly released grand jury report concludes.

The report, made public this month and set to go before supervisors Tuesday, asserts the board's action circumvented the recommendations of three Northern California public defenders brought on to evaluate competing bids.

As a result, the grand jury is recommending that supervisors construct a bidding process that ensures transparency on future criminal defense contracts.

"Lack of oversight invites potential abuse in the use of county funds," the grand jury states.

When a conflict of interest is declared in a court case, which could occur when there are multiple defendants in a single case, the county public defender must use an outside law firm to provide legal representation to those who cannot pay.

In March 2010, two firms -- Riverside-based Blumenthal Law Office and Criminal Defense Lawyers run by attorneys Steve Harmon and Paul Grech -- bid on the work for western and southwest Riverside County.

But Virginia Blumenthal, the runner-up in that first round of competition, raised accusations of favoritism and collusion after her bid came in $100 higher than that of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Because of the controversy, supervisors sent the work out for bid again in September with a revamped search committee made up of public defenders from Northern California.

In the second round, Blumenthal came out on top, not only for western and southwest but for all of Riverside County, a contract valued at $8.8 million. Still, that outcome didn't sit well with some supervisors, since the evaluation committee did not conduct face-to-face interviews.

Ultimately, the board opted to split the contract three ways with Blumenthal and Criminal Defense Lawyers taking the western and southwest areas, respectively, and the Law Offices of Barbara Brand retaining its contract for the eastern county.

The three firms negotiated the specifics of the arrangement among themselves.


The grand jury in its report said the Board of Supervisors "completely circumvented" the evaluation committee's work and disregarded the intent of the county's "Bid Review Under Transparent Environment" policy, also known as B.R.U.T.E.

"Non-adherence to the Board of Supervisor's own directives in this situation led competitors to negotiate amongst themselves rather than in the open environment as outlined in B.R.U.T.E.," the grand jury report states.

The grand jury also criticized the lack of outside auditing of a trust account used to pay for services such as outside investigators. The grand jury said annual audits are required but found only five in the past nine years.

Supervisor John Tavaglione, who proposed splitting the contracts, said the bid process was flawed and face-to-face interviews should have been done.

"While we always appreciate the input and review of the grand jury, that doesn't mean they're always right in their assessments or conclusions," Tavaglione said by email Sunday. "In this case, I believe they are wrong."

Supervisor Jeff Stone, who first proposed the transparency policy, said Friday he'll push to add more teeth to the rules as a result of the grand jury report.

"Everybody was held to the same standard," Stone said. "We really watered down the B.R.U.T.E. process."

Supervisors will have 60 days to approve a formal response to the grand jury.

"At this point, we will assess the findings and recommendations and report back to the board and grand jury within the time required by law," county spokesman Ray Smith said.

Reach Duane W. Gang at 951-368-9547 or

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