By Patty Guerra - Modesto Bee
The city has spent nearly $50,000 to defend two City Council members accused of wrongdoing in a Stanislaus County civil grand jury report.
But with the money going toward an attorney suing the county and a high-profile public relations professional, some are questioning whether it's an appropriate use of taxpayer money.
City Manager Rod Butler said the City Council last year authorized Annette Smith and Dominic Farinha to get "specialized legal counsel" in response to the grand jury.
In the report issued in June, grand jurors said Smith should lose her seat for failing to disclose a financial relationship with a developer and voting to give him $27,000 without justification, among other alleged offenses. The report said Farinha, Smith and then-Mayor Becky Campo illegally ousted then-City Manager Cleve Morris. And grand jurors said Farinha misused his position on the council over a planned city inspection of his business and tried to use city staff in an effort to collect delinquent rent.
Patterson responded with a blistering letter by City Attorney Tom Hallinan, denying wrongdoing by current or former council members. The vote to allow Smith and Farinha to use city money for their respective defenses took place in closed session; Butler said all five council members were there but referred questions about the vote to Hallinan, who could not be reached for comment.
Smith's bills total about $10,000. She is suing the county over the grand jury's report; a federal judge decided the lawsuit should be dismissed but gave Smith 30 days to refile an amended complaint. She has said she plans to do so and is confident of her chances in court.
Farinha has spent about $37,000. According to the Patterson Irrigator, Farinha hired Bay Area attorney Tip Mazzucco. Farinha also hired Nathan Ballard, a former communications director for Gavin Newsom, when Newsom was San Francisco's mayor.
Ballard issued a statement from Farinha in June in which he denied any wrongdoing.
Mayor Luis Molina said he thinks Smith and Farinha have spent more than they should, and he wants some justification.
"It shouldn't have gone this far," he said. He couldn't elaborate on what happened during closed session, but said, "I'm only one vote."
Farinha said this week that "I feel the subject is moot." He declined to elaborate, referring instead to an opinion piece he published in the Irrigator.
That included the following: "It certainly was not the city's initial desire to utilize professional resources to combat what the grand jury callously threw in its face, but as it is with any complicated challenge or frivolous attack that a municipality is faced with, legal costs become a standard byproduct of defending itself. … If you were placed into our situation and walked in our shoes, you would be seeking the same resolve to rectify and remedy a wrong that had been done towards you."
Official doing the legwork
Smith said the costs are justified because "it's something we were accused of in our official capacity." She said she has kept fees down by doing much of the research for her court case.
"The way I look at it, I'm slandered," she said. "I've done nothing wrong."
Smith said it's not her goal to waste the city's money. "If at any time I feel that this is not winnable, I will walk away."
Butler said he reviews the bills as they come in, and if he comes across anything questionable he will run it by Hallinan. He said the council did not place a cap on the amount Smith and Farinha could spent.
Molina said he will ask to review any paperwork not considered attorney-client privilege.
"This will come up for discussion at some point," he said. Whether that will be in closed or open session has not been determined. "My particular question is, 'Was this determined to be a justifiable expense?' "
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343.