Friday, September 20, 2013 – 12:00 p.m.

There’s been much written regarding the “purported” billing dispute between a statewide peace officer organization’s legal defense fund and an Upland-based law firm.

A dispute that has led to the firms pending dissolution.

But the backstory, and believe me, there always is one, is seriously troubling.

In the realm we’re talking about here, specifically, union member legal defense, I do have a little bit of experience.

Many law enforcement unions seek out and desire aggressive representation. Some other’s prefer not to rock the boat at all. It’s a matter of choice.

And that’s fair!

But something appears to have gone awfully wrong with the system that, for decades, has worked exceptionally well, apparently until now.

Yesterday, I reached out to, Saku Ethir, the managing partner of the law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill and Ethir.

What ensued was a lengthy discussion about what led up to the events that has caused the firm to break-up.

Let me first preface this discussion by stipulating to the following facts:

  • The Peace Officer’s Research Association of California (PORAC) is the largest law enforcement political lobbyig group in the Western United States.
  • The PORAC Legal Defense Fund (LDF) is the largest provider of peace officer legal defense services in the Western United States.
  • The Law Firm of Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir was the largest law firm provider in the LDF panel.
  • Both PORAC dues, and LDF premiums, are funded through member payroll deduction.
  • LDF rates are determined by the funds administrative operating costs plus two rating factors. Those factores being the base slope charges against all member unions, plus the experience/utilization charge, based upon each unions actual usage.

The experience/utilization charge would appear to be at the heart of this situation.

Two issues have arisen related to the law firm’s relationship with LDF.

The first, is somewhat minor. I like to refer to it as a “playing with the other kids in the sandbox” issue.

Lackie Dammeier, after garnering a good cross-section of association clients, obviously from other panel law firms, was forced to essentially adopt the practice of informing the incumbent law firm that one ot its clients was asking for a presentation to possibly change defense providers.

The second, and rather stunning issue, goes to the crux of the current situation.

LDF has always had a practice of closely scrutinizing monthly law firm billings. I call it the red-pen process. It’s a process where the LDF administrator is supposed to review charges line-by-line, and cross out, with an actual red pen, any charges they believe aren’t justified.

The practice has been in place for years.

A stunning June 2013 meeting, between managing partner Ethir, and LDF Administrators, at a restaurant near LAX, was the catalyst for the chain of events leading to the current firestorm.

In this meeting, LDF representatives raised concerns over the rise in the law firm’s billings, over the past nine or so months.

Discussions centered around specific example cases, many of which resulted in affected members winning their jobs back.

Essentially, LDF was concerned because associations were appealing substantial premium rate increases, and they wanted to contain costs.

What comes next should be alarming for anyone paying into the trust.

The LDF officials suggested that some of the cases defended, and won, by the firm, had cost way too much. It was further suggested, to Ethir, that some of those cases involved officer’s that actually did violate policy, and should have ended up as “negotiated resignations, in lieu of termination”. A common practice in law enforcement discipline cases.

In other words, if the case will cost too much, throw them under the bus!

The LDF representives said they were aware that the firm’s clients wanted aggressive representation.

Ethir says she was shocked by what she had heard, writing down many notes from the encounter.

When she presented the discussion to the law firm’s partners, the decision was made not to compromise any of the firm’s cases.

The following month the firm was accused of improper billing practices and LDF cut-off further payments, and the firm’s day-to-day operating revenue.

A source, present at the September 8 meeting of LDF Trustee’s meeting, says that the trust’s legal counsel, who I personally know to be a careful and thoughtful trust lawyer, adamantly tried to stop the board from rashly terminating the firm, on a 4-1 vote.

Reportedly, the trust’s lawyer was literally run over after a motion and a second, to terminate the law firm, was made.

One has to wonder if peace officer’s, who paying into the trust for legal defense coverage, have any knowledge their cases may be subject to other considerations?

While I have had my differences, with named partner Dieter Dammeier, the whole situation stinks.

After all, plan participants get what they pay for. If they aren’t paying enough why not tell them?

Maybe instead of having plan coverages “one through four”, LDF should have, “throw under the bus”, “mediocre”, “deluxe” and “premium”.