County Counsel Files Claim Alleging Retaliation


  • Jeffrey Blanck

The county of Humboldt's lead attorney Jeffrey Blanck filed a claim for damages April 4 alleging he was placed on paid administrative leave after raising concerns about an outside law firm's contract and that the board of supervisors violated open meeting laws by not reporting its action out of closed session.

Video of the March 19 meeting shows Blanck reading off the closed session agenda, including the item referring to him — the "evaluation of performance of a public employee and to hear complaints or charges brought against the employee by another person or employee" — before the supervisors retreated out of the main chambers.

When the board returns to open session, Blanck is absent and Deputy County Counsel Jefferson Billingsley has taken his place at the dais. At the prompting of Chair and First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, Billingsley then states for the record that "there's no reportable action on today's closed session."

The supervisors have met twice since Blanck filed his legal action but, according to the agendas, his claim of an improper handling of the closed session report as well as his allegations of "intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress" have not been a subject of discussion.

"The county has received Mr. Blanck's claim and, as with all claims we receive, we will investigate this issue in order to determine the most appropriate next steps," county spokesperson Sean Quincey wrote in an email to the Journal. "We take these matters very seriously. As such, and in order to preserve the integrity of the investigation, the county will not be commenting publicly about this issue."

According to Blanck's claim, the county's Human Resources Director Lisa DeMatteo and a partner at the outside firm Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore, stymied his attempts to directly monitor legal costs in accordance with his duties.

He also alleges DeMatteo repeatedly sent routine personnel issues to the firm, circumventing the county counsel's office.

Payments to Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore went from $137,000 in 2016 to $201,000 in 2017 and $353,000 in 2018, the claim states, amounts that Blanck reported tracking down by researching public records. He also came to believe the firm's retainer agreement with the county was not properly executed because it had not been signed by the board back in 2008, according to the claim.

Numbers provided by the county show the firm was paid $140,076 in fiscal year 2016-2017, $265,127 in fiscal year 2017-2018 and $319,291 in fiscal year 2018-2019. Quincey notes the amounts include "services provided to 21 different budget units, or programs, including the Sheriff's Office Operations, Jail, Public Authority, Social Services, Mental Health, the Risk Management Liability Fund and more."

Blanck's claim states he had placed an item to discuss his concerns about the county's contract with the firm on the March 12 closed session agenda but Bohn told Blanck a few days before the meeting that the item had been pulled on advice of counsel because two complaints had been filed against Blanck.

Blanck had wanted the supervisors to "clarify that County Counsel was to oversee all outside counsel" and hear about what he considered to be an "invalid contract and the more than two-fold increase in attorney' fees being charged the County of Humboldt," according to the claim.

The claim also states that County Administrative Officer Amy Nielsen provided Blanck with a "Notice of Complaint that specific charges had been filed against him" March 14 and told him he could have the matter heard in public but she had been advised not to provide more information on the exact nature of the complaints.

"The actions taken by my client were clearly as that of a 'whistleblower' regarding the misuses of county funds by county personnel and an outside third party," his attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson wrote in the April 4 claim sent to the county.

"As a result of the actions taken by the Board of Supervisors and County personnel, Mr. Blanck has suffered damages, including intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress in an amount to be determined," she concludes before signing off with, "I look forward to hearing from you."

Day-Wilson is Eureka's former city attorney, whose "mutual parting" with the municipality was announced last June after the city council called a special closed session meeting to discuss the potential firing or discipline of an employee.

Blanck's claim states that he was prevented from attending the March 19 closed session meeting to hear the complaints levied against him. It adds that Blanck believes the attorney who was advising the county on his personnel issue had a conflict of interest because she was a partner in the firm Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore that he was raising concerns about.

The claim also alleges the county violated the Brown Act in handling the agenda item by not including his title in the listing (which was done for other county directors on this week's agendas) and by not publicly reporting the board's decision to place him on leave.

State regulations on the meetings of public agencies, commonly known as the Brown Act, require that any "action taken to appoint, employ, dismiss, accept the resignation of, or otherwise affect the employment status of a public employee" is required to be reported out during the public meeting where the decision took place and include the "title of the position."

Blanck's tenure as county counsel has not been without controversy.

In 2016, his office decided to challenge a state Attorney's General Office subpoena for records during an investigation into the county's handling of child abuse and neglect reports, a case which eventually ended with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office agreeing to institute a series of policies and practices related to child welfare services.

Blanck also unsuccessfully petitioned the California Supreme Court in 2017 to depublish an appellate court's scathing rebuke of his office's conduct — described among other things as "profoundly disturbing" — in a right-to-die case involving a Carlotta couple, Dick and Judith Magney.

Earlier this year, the county agreed to settle a civil rights case brought by Judith Magney for $1 million and, although Blanck told the Journal the amount was covered by insurance, the county was liable for $100,000, according to a representative of the risk pool.

And, there have been questions raised about Brown Act violations under his watch, as well.

Like back in 2017, when the board authorized an agreement to pay former Public Defender David Marcus $25,000 in a Thanksgiving week special session before discussing the severance in an open meeting, which is required under opening meeting law.

The Journal wrote the county what's known as a "cure and correct" letter noting the transgression and the item was later discussed in open session, although Blanck denied there had been a Brown Act violation or that "discussion or direction was given by the board regarding the agreement" even though it had been signed by both parties, including then board Chair Virginia Bass, weeks earlier.

There was also the April 2018 do-over on the appointment of Cheryl Dillingham as interim auditor-controller after the board placed her in the post despite only having an agenda item indicating it would consider accepting a resignation and starting a recruitment process.

At the time, Blanck said he heard there might be allegations of a Brown Act violation and, even though he felt the action was covered, "rather than argue about sufficiency, I decided to put it back on the agenda."

Hired in 2015, Blanck made similar "whistleblower" allegations against a former employer in an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit he filed in Nevada more than a decade before arriving in Humboldt County.

He sued the Washoe County School District in 2004, alleging he was fired from his job as general counsel after raising concerns about how district funds were spent and "inappropriate attempts to retain outside counsel without proper authority."

According to news reports at the time, Blanck claimed he lost his job after questioning two donations the district made to the United Way — which were approved by the school board — and then filing a criminal complaint with the Washoe County Sheriff's Office.

An Associated Press story states the district attorney found no crime had been committed.

While it's unclear if the board of supervisors knew about the lawsuit at the time of Blanck's hiring, his tenure with the school district was mentioned in a county release announcing his hire as county counsel in 2015.

The claim filed against the county of Humboldt does not specify the amount of damages Blanck is seeking, stating it is "without limitation." He is also asking for what's known as "front pay," which according to an American Bar Association paper is compensation if reinstatement is not feasible for some reason, including that the work situation "would be antagonistic."

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