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Under Scrutiny

By Megan Kinneyn | Jan. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Jan. 2, 2007

Under Scrutiny

A critical government report raises doubts about the future of a federally funded program that provides representation to farmworks and the rural poor. By Nina Schuyler

By Nina Schuyler
      After years of controversy, a rural legal-assistance organization faces the possibility of extinction.
      In its 41-year history of representing the interests of farmworkers and the rural poor, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) has made its share of enemies. But in the wake of a recent internal report by the Legal Services Corporation, CRLA appears to be in hotter water than ever.
      The corporation's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) accuses the state organization of soliciting clients, working a case expected to generate fees, requesting attorneys fees, and engaging in political activities-all of which are forbidden because CRLA accepts federal funds. In its report, the OIG cited two cases in particular. In one, Committee Concerning Community Improvement v. Modesto (No. CIV-F-04-6121), filed in 2004 in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District, CRLA represented?allegedly for payment?10,000 mostly Latino residents of four unincorporated neighborhoods in Modesto who were seeking their fair share of municipal services, such as street lighting and sewer hookups. The second case, McBride v. Modesto City Schools, was filed in 2005 in state court in Stanislaus County. The issue was educational discrimination, based on the district's English-only test on the U.S. Constitution.
      Jose Padilla, CRLA's executive director, complains that in the OIG report, " 'Impact work' has become a code word for civil rights work." He adds, "Civil rights work may be controversial, but it's not illegal."
      Padilla, who has been with CRLA for the past 28 years, is well aware of all the investigations and audits the organization has been through. (Just in the past five years, there have been three.) In fact, "CRLA has to be the most investigated and audited program in the country," he says. But this time around it was a former CRLA employee who got the ball rolling, approaching Congressman Devin Nunes (R-Visalia) with emails that, she claimed, showed the organization devoted resources to impact work at the expense of basic legal services.
      At Nunes's request, the OIG began its investigation. But according to Padilla, CRLA was kept in the dark about the accusations for a good ten months. "All we knew was that an investigation was being conducted that was noncriminal and requested by Congressman Nunes, who, Padilla points out, is the largest recipient of dairy money in the country," according to the Center for Responsive Politics. CRLA's work directly affects agricultural constituents in Nunes's district, Padilla adds.
      As the investigation proceeded, Padilla was most struck by the government's expansive requests. Indeed, back in March the inspector general, Kirk West, first asked CRLA to turn over three years' worth of records on all clients, who are estimated to number 39,000. Later, West issued a subpoena to obtain the information. Padilla, however, refused to give the OIG everything it wanted. West, in turn, said this made it impossible for him to complete his investigation.
      "As lawyers in California, we are under a heavy obligation to protect the privacy of our clients," Padilla says. (CRLA is being represented by How-ard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin.)
      The Legal Services Corporation's Office of Compliance and Enforcement has asked CRLA to respond to the report's accusations (though it did drop the OIG's allegation of improper political activity). Meanwhile, the Congressional Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law is also looking into the controversy.
      No matter how all this gets hashed out, Congress still must decide later this month whether to reauthorize CRLA's funding?which amounts to well over half of its roughly $11.5 million annual budget.
      "We recognize our obligation to make sure federal money is spent correctly," says Padilla. "But we expect the investigation to be done objectively, not heavy-handedly, and we expect investigators not to require us to violate state privacy laws or the attorney-client privilege."

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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