Sacramento - In the final days before adjournment this past weekend, the California Legislature voted to allow attorneys representing state, local and federal government to openly report crimes and fraud by their client agencies to law enforcement, regulatory bodies and legislative committees. Unless vetoed by Governor Gray Davis, California would join Hawaii as the only states recognizing government lawyers' responsibility to "protect the public interest" by exposing "improper governmental activity."
Contrary to its liberal reputation, California has the strictest client confidentiality law in the nation, forbidding any disclosure of client misconduct even to save a life or prevent a calamity. The measure, AB 363 authored by Assembly Member Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), permits lawyers representing governmental clients at any level to report crimes and fraud "in order to prevent or rectify substantial harm to the public."
The measure 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, Mr. 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.
"While government employees are protected from on-the-job retaliation for reporting wrongdoing under whistleblower laws, these laws do not shield government attorneys from discipline and potential loss of license for violating client confidentiality in order to protect the public from harm," stated Assembly Member Steinberg, the Chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
"Attorneys in public service should not have to choose between exposing flagrant government wrongdoing and their ability to practice law," said Steinberg. Steinberg's bill is supported by the California Attorney General, the State Bar and organizations representing state and municipal counsels.
One of the bill's earliest and strongest supporters, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is seeking to enact comparable measures in other states."The situation of government lawyers such as Cindy Ossias who risk their livelihoods by exposing corruption is not uncommon," commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization represents public employee whistleblowers on environmental issues.
"Today in environmental agencies across the country, attorneys who are supposed to work for the public are precluded from exposing dangers to public health, serious pollution offenses and gross failures to protect our natural resources," said Ruch.