San Diego Union-Tribune, June 19, 2003
Otay Water District's legal advice
keeps getting more expensive
In yet another example of the Otay Water District's irresponsibility toward ratepayers, board
members have agreed to pay the legal costs for defending their own
outside attorneys in a ratepayer's lawsuit against the district.
Got that? Otay board members are paying for attorneys to defend their attorneys. They have no
choice. At a November 2001 meeting, in a move that legal experts say was highly unusual for a
public agency, board members voted to give the Los Angeles law firm of Burke, Williams &
Sorensen blanket indemnity from any legal action brought by anybody against the firm for its
advice or its actions on behalf of the district.
Usually, when an outside law firm represents a public agency, either the firm indemnifies the
agency against bad legal advice or both sides agree that each will be held harmless. But not at
Among a half dozen legal actions and complaints pending against the district is a false-claims
lawsuit against board member Jaime Bonilla, General Manager Bob Griego, the firm of Burke,
Williams & Sorensen, and two Burke attorneys, Bonifacio Garcia and Roberta Sistos. The
claim alleges Bonilla directed Garcia and Sistos to perform legal services
for the Otay Water District in December 2000, months before the water
district board had hired the law firm. In fact, Bonilla himself hadn't even
been sworn in as a board member when he ordered the legal services to
Nonetheless, the law firm submitted bills for more than $32,000 for the
months before it had been hired, and Griego and the board, led by Bonilla, paid the bills
in March 2001.
The false-claims lawsuit says that money should be repaid to the water district, plus damages
and civil penalties.
Garcia and Sistos are closely linked to Bonilla. On the first meeting after Bonilla was sworn in, he
helped engineer the firing of the water district's in-house counsel. Burke, Williams & Sorensen
was retained shortly thereafter. The district has paid the law firm over $1 million and perhaps as
much as $2 million over the past 2 1/2 years. Now, the water district board is paying other legal
counsel to represent the law firm and board members for actions taken by the district on advice
from Burke, Williams & Sorensen.
Legal experts say the indemnity given to Burke, Williams & Sorensen by the
Otay Water District is far from normal procedure for public agencies. Most
lawyers would not ask to be released from liability for advice rendered to a
client. And why would any client, especially a public agency supported entirely
by ratepayer dollars, agree to such a deal? What kind of legal advice is Otay
receiving if its attorneys won't stand behind that advice without indemnity?
Garcia says the indemnity clause is perfectly legal and within the rules of
professional conduct. He has a letter from Escondido attorney Ellen Peck,
dated yesterday, saying as much.
But Burke, Williams & Sorensen does not have the same indemnity clause with
its other major South Bay client, the Sweetwater Union High School District.
Attorney Dan Shinoff, who is now representing Otay in the
false-claims lawsuit, said he has seen such indemnity clauses
But when asked if he had such indemnity from the district for
his legal work, his answer was no. [See this document for a
case in which Chula Vista Elementary School District/San Diego
County Office of Education indemnified Mr. Shinoff and his law
The indemnity clause could become very costly to Otay ratepayers. The turmoil at the district
already has produced a lot of legal action, and more may be forthcoming. If Otay's pricey outside
attorneys are responsible for giving legal advice that results in harm to the district, ratepayers
will foot the bill. It's just more bad news from the Otay Water District.
More information can be found here.
|San Diego Education Report
Otay Water District's
legal costs by fiscal
year (July to June):
"The claim alleges Bonilla
directed Garcia and Sistos to
perform legal services for the
Otay Water District in
December 2000, months
before the water district board
had hired the law firm. In fact,
Bonilla himself hadn't even
been sworn in as a board
member when he ordered the
legal services to be
"Nonetheless, the law firm
submitted bills for more than
$32,000 for the months before
it had been hired, and Griego
and the board, led by Bonilla,
paid the bills in March 2001."