General counsel is heckled by own staff during keynote speech at legal conference
Posted Jun 19, 2013 2:40 PM CST
By Martha Neil
The general counsel for the California Public Utilities Commission found he was talking to an unfriendly forum—his own staff—when he gave the keynote speech Monday at a legal conference his agency is hosting.
Attendees from around the country watched as top in-house lawyer Frank Lindh was heckled during his speech about staff attorneys at a "hypothetical" utility regulator who lacked judgment and loyalty, the Recorder reports.
Specifically, his speech (PDF) discussed what duty of loyalty is owed by a staff lawyer who strongly disagrees with a client's legally permissible position on a rate-setting proposal.
"My solution in this circumstance would be to ask for a reassignment, but also to take steps to make sure I am not leaving my client in the lurch by withdrawing at the last minute," said Lindh. "In the end, it all comes back to loyalty. Under the canons of ethics, I simply cannot be disloyal to my client, even in the circumstance where I disagree strongly with my client’s wishes."
His comments at the National Conference of Regulatory Attorneys conference in San Francisco were apparently relevant to the recent reported reassignment of an entire team of CPUC lawyers. They were responsible for handling litigation over Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s culpability in a 2010 natural gas explosion and fire that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
The four-lawyer team had taken a position that supported the city of San Bruno's call for more than $2 billion in fines to be imposed on the gas company, and the city asked earlier this month for the state attorney general and lawmakers to look into the lawyers' reassignment.
In a Friday interview, Lindh also said the AG should investigate—to set the record straight—and said he "begged the attorneys to stay on the case," the Bay Area News Group reported in an article published by the San Mateo County Times.
"They withdrew from the case," Lindh said, "and they left me with the obligation to fill in behind them."
However, in an email to Lindh leaked to the newspaper that was also sent Friday, assistant CPUC general counsel Harvey Morris said the team had not sought reassignment. He said they had refused to sign a brief they believed to be unethical, apparently over concerns that it made unlawful recommendations about the penalties that should be assessed against the gas company in the San Bruno case, according to the Bay Area News Group article and other media reports.
"Because you did nothing to resolve our ethical concerns, one attorney asked to be taken off the case, and then you claimed that all of us asked to be reassigned," Morris wrote.
ABAJournal.com: "State legal team seeking $2B fine in fatal gas fire is reassigned; city calls for AG probe"
The Swarm (Sacramento Bee): "PG&E president rebuts calls by San Bruno leaders for big fine"