Washington, DC –John W. Dean, former Nixon White House counsel, is urging Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign legislation allowing government lawyers in California to report official misconduct without facing loss of license or other discipline for breaching client confidentiality, according to a letter released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The measure, AB 2713 authored by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Woodland Hills), permits lawyers representing governmental clients at any level to report crimes and fraud “in order to prevent or rectify substantial harm to the public.” Passed by both houses of the legislature, the bill is on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s desk awaiting either his signature or veto by the end of the month. In 2002, then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a similar bill.
If enacted, California would join Hawaii as the only state recognizing government lawyers’ responsibility to protect “the public interest” by exposing “improper governmental activity.” Dean, whose testimony in the Watergate hearings helped lead to President Nixon’s resignation, wrote that –
“Without this law an attorney’s license to practice law is in jeopardy should they report such misconduct by their government client… As a former White House counsel once confronted with such problems at the highest level of government, I have a special interest in seeing that government attorneys have clear rules, and not be forced to flounder on their own when they are confronted with the misconduct of their colleagues.”
“In California, as in most other states, the only ethical recourses for a government lawyer facing compelling evidence of corruption or threat to public safety is to resign and remain forever silent,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who sponsored the enactment of the “California Whistleblower Protection Act” in 1999 and has led the drive to extend those protections to public agency attorneys. “Today in environmental agencies across the country, attorneys who are supposed to work for the public are prevented from exposing dangers to public health and serious pollution offenses.”
AB 2713 grew out of the case of Cindy Ossias, an attorney for the Department of Insurance. Ms. Ossias reported kickbacks and other enforcement irregularities by the elected Insurance Commissioner, Chuck Quackenbush, to a legislative investigating committee. Faced with revelation of these internal secrets, Quackenbush resigned and fled the state. Ms. Ossias became the subject of a disciplinary complaint to the State Bar for revealing her employer’s confidences. The State Bar declined to prosecute but also declined to issue a ruling protecting other lawyers under similar circumstances.
Under this bill, attorneys representing state, local and federal government would be able to report crimes and fraud by their client agencies to law enforcement, regulatory bodies and legislative committees. While the bill applies only to attorneys embarred in California, PEER is seeking to enact comparable measures in other states.