A federal investigation into a California legal aid group has now become a test case in how far law enforcement officers can go.
It’s also become a reminder of how long legal disputes can linger.
Next Thursday, April 11, a powerful Washington, D.C.-based appellate court will wrestle with the tricky legal questions arising from the extended investigation into California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit agency that receives federal funds.
The investigation by the federal Legal Services Corp., which provides money to the group, was initiated in late 2005. It has previously alleged that California legal aid workers improperly engaged in politics and chased after clients in the state’s San Joaquin Valley.
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The investigation remains incomplete, though, because California Rural Legal Assistance officials declined to turn over all of their records, despite a subpoena. The subpoenaed records in question cover some 39,000 individuals, some of them clients and some of them people who had contacted the agency but never became formal clients. Records include information like birth date, citizenship and marital status.
“I’ve been practicing law for nearly 30 years,” University of North Carolina law professor Bernard A. Burk said in a telephone interview, “and this is the most stunning exhibition of government overreach I’ve ever seen.”
Burk will be making the California case during the 30-minute oral arguments scheduled before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. With rulings that stretch nationwide, the D.C. court is often called the nation’s second-most powerful, right below the Supreme Court.
Consequently, Burk noted, the California case could become “the leading edge” for other legal disputes pitting attorney-client confidentiality against the demands of law enforcement officials armed with subpoena power.
“The subpoena,” Justice Department attorneys stressed in their legal brief, “was authorized, not unduly burdensome, and sought material reasonably relevant to a legitimate lawful purpose.”
A California Rural Legal Assistance spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.
Primarily funded through the federal Legal Services Corp., the group operates 21 offices throughout the state, providing free legal assistance to an estimated 40,000 low-income residents annually.
Much of the work is routine, like handling disputes between tenants and landlords. Over the past year, the organization’s lawyers have also undertaken broader actions, including seeking clean drinking water for impoverished Tulare County residents and suing southern California farmers over allegedly unsafe working conditions.
“The impact of CRLA’s litigation has touched the lives of literally millions of low-income individuals,” the group’s executive director, Jose R. Padilla, states on the organization’s web site.
At times, though, legal aid attorneys have angered farmers, including members of the state’s politically powerful dairy industry. Republican lawmakers and groups like the Modesto-based Western United Dairymen have periodically asked the Legal Services Corp.’s Office of Inspector General to investigate what the lawyers do and how the federal funds are spent.
“The CRLA is a rogue organization with a long history of serious legal violations,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said Thursday. “In light of these transgressions and its long-standing refusal to cooperate with the inspector general, its federal funding should be terminated.”
Another California lawmaker allied with the state’s dairy industry, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said the legal-aid group has undertaken some “efforts that I disagree with,” but added that it has also provided legal help “to those who would not otherwise have it.” He said it’s unlikely lawmakers would strip funding.
Last Congress, a House bill to repeal the $400 million-a-year Legal Services Corporation altogether garnered 15 Republican supporters, but went nowhere. Similar bills have also died over the years.
The most recent audit was requested in late 2005 by Nunes, based partly on allegations from an attorney in the group’s Modesto, Calif. office that the legal aid lawyers were spending too much time on farmworker and Latino issues, to the detriment of others in need. Preliminary results were reported in September 2006.
Investigators reported finding “substantial evidence” that the legal-aid group had “violated federal law by soliciting clients, working a fee-generating case, requesting attorney fees (and) associating CRLA with political activities.”
“Additional evidence raises serious concerns that CRLA may be violating other provisions of federal law,” investigators added in their preliminary report.
To follow up, investigators served the organization with a subpoena in October 2006, requesting a host of documents. While turning over some, legal-aid officials insisted that full disclosure of client names and other identifying information would violate both state and federal attorney-client privilege protections.
In a November 2011 ruling, a federal judge concluded that CRLA had to provide some of the subpoenaed information, including client names and retainer agreements, unless it was specifically covered by the attorney-client privilege.
“The court is not persuaded that California professional standards require non-disclosure of the subpoenaed information in this case,” U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan stated.