Judge waits on conflict of interest decision in Fruitvale gang injunction
on January 7, 2011
An Alameda County judge decided Friday to put off a decision about whether attorneys from Oakland law firm Siegel and Yee can represent a man who was named on a pending gang injunction. Lawyers from the Oakland City Attorney’s Office had brought up concerns regarding a conflict of interest within the law firm, where City Councilmember Jane Brunner practices, arguing that Brunner’s role in the firm could expose Siegel and Yee lawyers to the city’s confidential information.
Lawyers from Siegel and Yee said in court Friday that they began forming a non-profit in December that would avoid a conflict of interest, but Judge Robert Freedman said there was not enough evidence to decide whether the reorganization would take care of ethical concerns.
The City Attorney’s Office petitioned the court in November to establish a gang injunction in the Fruitvale neighborhood, an order that would restrict 40 alleged Norteño gang members from participating in certain activities, such as possessing a gun or associating with other alleged gang members, within a “safety zone.” According to an informational flyer put out by the City Attorney’s office, a gang injunction “protects the community by restricting the criminal activity of individuals who are proven in court to be active gang members.” The second of two injunctions proposed in Oakland, the Fruitvale injunction is not yet in effect.
Deemed defendants in a civil lawsuit, alleged gang members who find their names listed on an injunction can go through an “opt-out” process if the Fruitvale injunction eventually takes effect. This process, which is free, requires a defendant to show that they are no longer affiliating with the Norteños; a panel will decide if their name can be removed from the injunction. “All have due process rights, an opportunity to a day in court and the right to be represented by an attorney,” City Attorney John Russo said of the alleged gang members in a press release Friday.
But people named on the injunction are not guaranteed an attorney without charge. If defendants want professional legal counsel, it will be at their own expense, and they must pay filing fees if they appear in court to fight the lawsuit. That is what one defendant, Abel Manzo, decided to do in November. Attorney Dan Siegel offered at that time to represent Manzo pro bono, and moved to have Manzo’s name taken off the pending injunction.
Conflict arose over Siegel and Yee’s involvement, and a December court hearing to decide the merits of the injunction was postponed until after the holidays. Dan Siegel has since recused himself from the matter, but two other Siegel and Yee attorneys have offered to represent Manzo. Jose Luis Fuentes and Michael Siegel, Dan Siegel’s son, said Friday in court that they have formed a non-profit public interest law firm that will allow them to represent the defendants from behind an “ethical wall.”
In Friday’s hearing before Judge Robert Freedman at the Alameda County Administration Building, Michael Siegel argued that the new organization, called Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), would prevent a conflict of interest. He said the organization would represent Manzo pro bono, and a Thursday press release from a group affiliated with the Stop the Injunction Coalition said that CURYJ, “promotes restorative justice programs, offers nonviolence trainings, and provides legal services in defense of civil and human rights.”
“A mere appearance of impropriety is not enough,” to keep Fuentes or himself from representing a person named in the injunction, the younger Siegel said. Siegel also expressed dismay toward lawyers from the City Attorney’s Office, saying they had referred in court documents to CURYJ as a “sham.”
Tricia Hynes, an attorney retained by the City Attorney’s Office for work on the gang injunction, argued that the creation of CURYJ did not eliminate a conflict of interest. “There can be no appearance of impropriety” allowed for a law firm with a relationship to a public figure like Brunner, Hynes said. In their original complaint against Siegel and Yee’s involvement, the City Attorney’s lawyers said that associates of Brunner’s law firm could access confidential information about the city’s policing and law enforcement strategies; this would be a violation of California’s rules of professional conduct for barred attorneys.
Furthermore, Hynes and other city attorney lawyers say that the formation of CURYJ is an excuse to ignore ethical concerns. In a document filed with the court, lawyers for the City Attorney’s office stated “Siegel and Yee’s blatant engagement in this shell game must not be tolerated.”
Brunner said in an interview Friday that she does not think the situation represents a conflict of interest. “But irrelevant of that, I will recuse myself of anything that has to do with gang injunction because of the perception” of a conflict of interest, Brunner said. “I’m going to wait and take direction from the judge.”
In the motion to disqualify the law firm’s attorneys, City Attorney lawyers also suggested that Siegel and Yee have worked for Mayor Jean Quan. Russo’s office reiterated this stance in a press release Friday, saying, “How does it help our community to have the mayor’s personal attorney representing gang members against the city in a lawsuit?” Michael Siegel said the allegations of a connection between Siegel and Yee and the mayor cannot be substantiated.
Citing the need for more evidence, Judge Freedman said he would hear more information on February 3. Discussion of the merits of the injunction is scheduled for a hearing on February 16. Judge Freedman said that concern about Quan’s relationship to the law firm wouldn’t sway his decision, and that lawyers from both sides should focus on whether Brunner’s involvement creates a real conflict of interest.
Hynes said that this “bodes well” for the City Attorney’s office. “I’m remaining hopeful that we’ll prevail,” she said.
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