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MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
(415)868-1600 - (415)868-0502(fax) - P.O. Box 31, Bolinas, CA, 94924

November, 2006

 

Marin Judges Grilled About Major Conflicts Of Interest

Judge Lynn Duryee
Presiding Judge
RE: Various issues of concern

Dear Judge Duryee:
I am writing to you in your capacity as the Presiding Judge of the Marin County Superior Court.
On April 3, 2006 you told the IJ that "I am dedicated to restoring trust and confidence in our courts."

I have recently acquired information which concerns me greatly as a Marin taxpayer, lawyer, and member of the Marin County Bar Association. I am requesting that you take steps to restore my trust and confidence in the Marin court by promptly and fully providing the information I am requesting.


1. How much have Marin County taxpayers paid your husband's law firm since you took the bench?

I have acquired from the County Clerk's office a copy of the Statement of Economic Interests you filed on February 8, 2006. I daresay you appear to be one of our wealthiest judges here in Marin. In addition to having an ownership interest in about 15 pieces of property, you list an interest in the "Freitas Law Firm", located at 1108 Fifth Avenue, San Rafael, CA. You list that as "Husband's Law firm".

I understand your husband is Neil Moran, and he is a member of the Freitas, McCarthy, MacMahon & Keating law firm. I researched that law firm through Martindale-Hubbell, and included Judge Lynn Duryee among "Representative Clients" are:

County of Marin
City of San Rafael
Marin Municipal Water District
Town of Tiburon
City of Belvedere
Tamalpais Union High School
As far as I can tell, Marin taxpayers have not only been paying you your judge's salary (I believe the salary is approximately $150,000) plus health and pension benefits, but they are also likely paying thousands of dollars-or maybe millions-to your husband's law firm, in which you clearly have a substantial community property interest.

Thus the question: how much have the taxpayers paid your husband's firm?


2. How many and which political campaigns have been run out of your husband's law firm since you took office?

I acquired from the county elections office a copy of the Recipient Committee Campaign Statements for Judge Michael Dufficy and Judge John Sutro. Your husband, Neil Moran, is listed as re-election campaign treasurer for each judge. The name of the campaign committee raising funds for Judge Dufficy was "Friends for the Re-Election of Judge Michael Dufficy, and the address listed is "1108 Fifth Avenue, 3rd Floor, San Rafael" -which is the address of your husband's law firm. Similarly, the name of the campaign committee raising funds for Judge Sutro was "Friends for the Re-Election of Judge Sutro", and the address listed was also "1108 Fifth Avenue, 3rd Floor".

It would appear that the law firm which is receiving substantial taxpayer monies - the law firm in which you have a substantial community property interest-- is the launching pad for multiple political campaigns and careers.

Thus the question: how many and which political campaigns have been run out of your husband's law firm?


3. How much has your husband's law firm contributed to elected officials since you took office? It appears from the Recipient Committee Campaign Statements for Judge Dufficy and Judge Lynn Duryee.

Judge Sutro that your husband's law firm was the very top contributor to each of the judges. Your husband's firm gave $2,500 to each candidate.

My concern is one of an appearance of impropriety and conflict of interest.

Your husband's law firm appears to be the source of substantial political support which benefits public officials including the Marin bench.

Your husband's law firm is a top contributor to public officials.

This would appear to create a debt on behalf of those receiving the benefit of the efforts and money from your husband's law firm.

Your husband's law firm has many lucrative public clients, whose fees are apparently paid by Marin taxpayers.

Your husband's law firm represents clients before the Marin bench.

And, most recently, our new court commissioner, Beverly Wood, was selected by the Marin bench from a field of approximately 50 applicants. Her Statement of Economic Interests filed December 8, 2005 appears to indicate that her spouse is a partner in your husband's law firm, and that she is employed there.

One could easily conclude that the Freitas Law Firm is being rewarded for their political support by being awarded lucrative legal contracts and other benefits, such as assignments to the Marin bench-all funded by Marin taxpayers.


4. Which judges were involved in selecting the new court commissioners, namely Beverly Wood and Roy Chernus, from the field of approximately 50 applicants? I understand that in 2005 a select committee of judges trimmed the list of applicants for court commissioner from 50 or so, to 5. Of those 50, Beverly Wood (discussed above) and Roy Chernus were selected. It just so happens that both appear to have substantial political ties to the current bench. Thus I am asking which judges were on that select committee.

Roy Chernus was appointed as a Marin County court commissioner immediately following an unusual and public solicitation of support for the Marin Bench by Mr. Chernus's wife, family law attorney Renee Chernus. Ms. Chernus is well-known as an avid and longtime court defender and direct conduit between the bench and the Marin bar. Her very public solicitation of support took place in late September, 2005, after the Marin Independent Journal published an article which could be perceived as critical of you and the Marin bench, naming a case in which Ms. Chernus was counsel and you were the judge. Ms. Chernus responded to the newspaper article by sending a mass e-mail to over 400 members of the Marin bench and bar allegedly seeking support for "an independent judiciary". Ms. Chernus did not reveal in her e-mail that at that time her own husband had pending before the Marin judiciary an application to be appointed court commissioner. Ms. Chernus' efforts to support you and an "independent judiciary" resulted in the immediate creation and dissemination of a letter to the Marin Independent Journal signed by the 2005 Marin County Bar Association President Len Rifkind, defending you and the Marin bench. According to the letter, the information in the letter was "accurate and unbiased". According to my subsequent conversation with Mr. Rifkind, the information in the letter was actually based on a 5-minute conversation between Mr. Rifkind and Ms. Chernus -the lawyer in the case addressed in Mr. Rifkind's letter. When I told Mr. Rifkind the information was inaccurate and misleading, and suggested this was an improper use of the Marin County Bar Association for individual political purposes, he pointed out that he was not the one who had instituted the policy to defend the judges against public criticism, but that this is what he had inherited.

In fact, that is true. The policy was put into place in 2003 by then MCBA president David Feingold. Mr. Feingold is a member of the Ragghianti-Freitas law firm.

In any event, the MCBA letter sent out in your defense was apparently not sent directly to the Marin Independent Journal, but rather was e-mailed by Mr. Rifkind to Roy Chernus, and copied to Renee Chernus, who then sent the letter out via another mass e-mail to the members of the Marin County Bar Association and staff and members of the Marin Bench. Shortly afterward, Mr. Chernus was appointed court commissioner.

I do not know if the efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Chernus to support you and "an independent judiciary" had anything to do with Mr. Chernus' subsequent appointment as Marin court commissioner three weeks later, but a person could certainly reasonably draw that conclusion.

As you are aware, on February 15, 2006 and thereafter, I wrote to you about this matter in your capacity as Presiding Judge. I requested an inquiry by the Marin Superior Court into this matter. How and why was Mr. Chernus involved in the genesis, creation and/or dissemination of the MCBA letter? With whom did he communicate? Did he or his wife have any contact with any members of the bench in connection with the letter, other than what was directly copied to me and other members of the MCBA? Was the committee that selected Mr. Chernus over other candidates aware of the efforts of Mr. Chernus and his wife to "defend the judiciary"? And finally, did you, your husband, Renee Chernus, or anyone else acting on your behalf take part in writing, reviewing or editing the letter ultimately sent out by Len Rifkind, which letter discussed a case pending before you in which Renee Chernus was counsel?

I am certain you understand my concerns, not the least of which is the appearance of impropriety and conflict of interest if political support by Mr. Chernus and his wife, allegedly for "an independent judiciary", resulted in Mr. Chernus' receipt of a nice job with benefits from that judiciary paid for by Marin taxpayers. Mr. Chernus is now performing judicial functions himself.


5. How much have Marin County taxpayers paid the Ragghianti Freitas law firm?.

As I mentioned above, David Feingold was the 2003 Marin County Bar Association president who implemented a formal policy "in support of an independent judiciary" which would require the Marin County Bar Association to defend judges against public criticism. His law partner, Gary Ragghianti, has been a staunch supporter of the Marin bench, and he was a member of the "Committee to Retain an Independent Judiciary" formed in 2000 to defeat the recall efforts against you, Judge Michael Dufficy and Judge Terrence Boren.

The Ragghianti-Freitas law firm was also one of the top contributors to Judge Sutro ($2,000, just below the $2,500 given by your husband's law firm) and Mr. Ragghianti gave Judge Dufficy $1,000 during his re-election campaign in 2004.

I researched the Ragghianti Freitas law firm through Martindale Hubbell as well. Their representative clients include:


County of Marin
City of San Rafael
City of Belvedere
Marin Municipal Water District
Novato Fire Protection District

So, as with your husband's law firm, it appears that the Ragghianti Freitas law firm is quite politically and financially active in their support of the Marin bench.

And, as with your husband's law firm, it appears that the firm receives a lot of money from Marin taxpayers.

Thus my question: How much have Marin County taxpayers paid the Ragghianti-Freitas law firm?

As you can tell, my concern about all of the above is the distinct and continuing appearance of impropriety and conflicts of interest. It could definitely appear to some that if the magic words are spoken ("support for an independent judiciary") by certain well-connected lawyers giving substantial money and/or support to the bench in time of political need, then those lawyers are rewarded with lucrative legal contracts and/or appointments as court commissioners. And the Marin taxpayers appear to footing the bill.

I am copying this letter to Kim Turner, as she oversees the budget, knows how much everyone has been paid, and was selected by the bench as John Montgomery's successor. I reiterate to her my request for information available to her as to how much has been paid to your husband's law firm, and the Ragghianti-Freitas law firm.

I look forward to a prompt and thorough response to my concerns.

BARBARA A. KAUFFMAN
CC: Kim Turner, as well as judicial oversight bodies and elected California officials.



Follow Up Letter
Judge Lynn Duryee, Presiding Judge; Matthew H. Hymel, Marin County Administrator; Kim Turner, Court Executive Officer

Follow-up on 9/21/06 letter
Additional inquiries
Dear Judge Duryee, Ms. Turner, and Mr. Hymel:

It has been ten days since I wrote to Judge Duryee and Kim Turner, asking how much money has been paid by taxpayers to the Freitas Law Firm (and when I say "the Freitas Law Firm", I mean payments to the firm itself and/or to any of its members). I have received no response. I am sorry about that because I am truly trying to get an accurate and complete picture of the money flow involving the taxpayers, the county, the judges, and the Freitas Law Firm. After giving this matter some more thought in the past couple of days, I realize the money flow may come from a variety of sources. It may come from a) the County Administrator (payments for legal contracts, expense reimbursements, etc.?) or b) the Court Executive Officer (payments to serve as appointed counsel, judges pro tem, experts, referees, trustees, mediators, arbitrators, etc., as well as meal and other expense reimbursements between judges and firm members?) or c) outside sources. Judges routinely appoint lawyers to serve a variety of functions in cases, and order litigants to pay for the services. Judges also routinely render decisions in favor of attorneys, causing them to receive a contingency fee from litigants, or make fee awards to attorneys rendering services in cases before them, payable by the litigants.

So I am requesting that you clear this up for me. I would greatly appreciate it if you would let me know, as soon as possible:

1. How much have the taxpayers (county, state or federal) paid the Freitas Law Firm, and from what sources, through the County Administrator's budget since Judge Duryee took the bench?

2. How much have the taxpayers (county, state or federal) paid the Freitas Law Firm, and from what sources, through the Court Executive Officer's budget since Judge Duryee took the bench?

3. How much have the taxpayers (county, state or federal) paid the Freitas Law Firm, and from what sources, through any other County source since Judge Duryee took the bench?

4. Have the taxpayers reimbursed expenses for meals and entertainment involving members of the bench and members of the Freitas Law Firm? If so, who was involved, how much was spent, and what public source paid for it?

5. In how many cases have members of the Freitas Law Firm appeared in cases before a) Judge Duryee; and/or b) other Marin judges to whom members of the Freitas firm have provided financial support via campaign contributions or significant fundraising activities? With respect to those cases, was Mr. Moran's marital relationship with Judge Duryee disclosed, and/or were Freitas contributions to and campaign activities for the judge hearing the case disclosed, prior to or at the commencement of the case?

6. In how many cases have members of the Freitas Law Firm been appointed to provide services of any kind (appointed counsel, judges pro tem, experts, referees, trustees, mediators, conservators, arbitrators etc.) in cases pending before the Marin Bench by a) Judge Duryee; and/or b) other Marin judges to whom members of the Freitas firm have provided financial support via campaign contributions or significant fundraising activities? With respect to those appointments, were the services paid for by the litigants, or by the taxpayers through a public source? Was Mr. Moran's marital relationship with Judge Duryee disclosed, and/or were Freitas contributions to and campaign activities for the judge hearing the case disclosed, prior to the appointment?

I realize that I am asking some difficult questions, but the facts set forth in my September 21, 2006 letters have caused me to have great concern about extraordinarily obvious judicial conflicts of interest which a) are unwittingly paid for by taxpayers and litigants, and b) appear to be approved by the judges, the court executive officer, the county administrative officer, and/or others.

Judge Duryee
Kim Turner
Matthew H. Hymel
Page Four
This issue is of direct concern to me as a family law attorney practicing primarily in Marin. Since 1999 I and many others have expressed concerns about Judge Duryee's well-known reputation for bias and conflicts of interest.

(See for example, the 2004 judicial survey prepared by the Marin County Women Lawyers. Judge Duryee ranked at the very bottom of the survey.) I believe the court records (if they have been kept intact, and properly reported) will reflect an astounding number of CCP 170.6 challenges by lawyers who have wanted to disqualify Judge Duryee. In the past, those concerned about Judge Duryee could challenge Judge Duryee via CCP 170.6 and be assigned to a different family law bench officer who hopefully was relatively independent of Judge Duryee. Now if we challenge Judge Duryee we will be assigned to her friend Beverly Wood, with whom Judge Duryee shares incredibly intertwined financial and social ties.

Marin County judges and officials should not be supporting these kinds of judicial conflicts of interest, financially or otherwise. Think about it. Judge Duryee and Commissioner Wood conceivably have a financial interest in every dollar paid to the Freitas Law Firm.

I look forward to a prompt and thorough response to my questions and concerns. I reiterate my prior inquiries with respect to the Ragghianti firm as well.

BARBARA A. KAUFFMAN
CC: Judicial oversight bodies and elected California officials.


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