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County Prosecutors Reject Santa Monica Council Member Probe

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

October 27, 2015 -- The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has rejected investigating allegations of wrongdoing by Santa Monica Council member Pam O’Connor, saying the statute of limitations has expired on the controversial case of the hiring and firing of Elizabeth Riel.

The alleged “criminal misconduct” occurred May 23 and May 24 of 2014 – putting the case now beyond the one-year expiration of the statute of limitations, according to the October 20 letter from Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey to the office of the Santa Monica City Attorney.

It also noted that City hiring and firing is “a civil matter left to the sound discretion of the City of Santa Monica and, when necessary, the civil courts.”

The D.A.’s decision to stay out of the fray was protested by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, the activist group that filed the complaint accusing O’Connor of relentlessly campaigning behind-the-scenes against Riel – a past political foe. (“Santa Monica Council member Fought to Oust City Spokeswoman, Group Contends,” August 26, 2015).

Santa Monica’s City Charter prohibits any City Council member from interfering in the City Manager’s hiring and firing decisions, the Coalition has noted.

“The City let the statute of limitations run out months before it released the key documents so that residents could file a complaint,” the SMCLC said in a posting on its website Monday.

SMCLC representatives said the documents needed for a criminal investigation sat in the City’s hands too long, instead of being “immediately” sent to the D.A. or made available to the public so that “someone, such as SMCLC, could review them and file a complaint within the required statutory time.”

“The City did neither and thus ran out the clock,” the SMCLC’s post said.

Riel worked with a political campaign that opposed O’Connor 's re-election eight years ago. Riel was hired to head City communications last year and then abruptly fired by then-City Manager Rod Gould before she could start the job.

The decision not to hire Riel turned out to be expensive. Riel sued in federal court and received a $710,000 settlement from the City Council in July. (“Santa Monica City Approves $710,000 Settlement in Hiring Case,” July 17, 2015).

Following the settlement, SMCLC conducted its own investigation, which accused O’Connor of misconduct and called for the City to look into the controversy.  City Attorney Marsha Moutrie rejected the request, contending that an investigation would pose a conflict of interest.  She then sent the request on to the D.A.

Early this month, the City Council partially bowed to SMCLC’s wishes for a council investigation into the link between O’Connor and Riel’s firing, when the council voted unanimously to hire one or more outside experts to look into the case.  (“Santa Monica City Council Requests Ethics Review,” October 2, 2015).

However, some were adamant that the review not be looked at as a prosecution. Instead, the review is to be part of a larger analysis of the City’s anti-corruption laws and how they compare with those of other local governments in California.

Council members were to send their top picks for experts to City Manager Rick Cole, who was tasked with narrowing down the list.

It was yet to be determined when the Council will pick a reviewer, but SMCLC officials contend an outside review is now more important than ever.

“This is a critical moment in our City’s governance,” the group’s leaders said. “We called for this investigation and we will pursue this matter until residents have satisfactory answers as to what happened, who at the senior staff level acted inappropriately, and who should be held accountable.”

Political observers had predicted the D.A. would opt not to get involved in the Riel controversy. They pointed out that county prosecutors last year also rejected a Transparency Project complaint sent to the City Attorney involving O’Connor and campaign contributions from developers.

In that instance, the D.A.’s Bureau of Fraud and Corruption Prosecutions/Public Integrity Division City sent a letter to Moutrie stating it was worried the D.A. would become “the de facto enforcer” of the City’s Oaks Initiative, its anti-corruption law.

Instead, it was recommended that the City Attorney’s office “create a wall of silence between an individual city attorney and the remainder of the office so recusal of the entire office is not necessary.”

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