Bar Associations

Fired bar leader's suit is baseless and his whistleblower claims are 'bewildering,' Calif. bar says

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Updated: The State Bar of California is firing back after its former executive director claimed in a lawsuit that he was fired for exposing “egregious improprieties.”

The bar says the lawsuit by fired executive director Joe Dunn is “baseless” and his claims of being a whistleblower are “bewildering” because it was his job to manage the bar’s operations and employees.

Dunn claimed in his lawsuit (PDF) that he was told of his firing Nov. 7, just days after he and seven other anonymous complainants filed whistleblower notices with the bar. The bar publicly announced Dunn’s departure last Thursday, and Dunn filed his suit a few hours later.

Dunn says in the suit that his whistleblower complaints alleged “ethical breaches, prosecutorial lapses and fiscal improprieties” by some bar officials. One of the whistleblower allegations, he said, was that chief trial counsel Jayne Kim removed a category of discipline cases from reports to conceal the true backlog of disciplinary cases. “Kim’s conduct did not involve a few isolated cases but was shockingly rampant,” the suit alleges.

Kim had filed an internal complaint against Dunn, his suit alleges, in an attempt “to preserve her position.” And the law firm hired to investigate—Munger, Tolles & Olson—had close ties to a bar trustee, the suit claimed. Furthermore, the suit alleged, the hiring of the law firm was “an utter waste of state bar membership dues” because a retired state supreme court justice had offered to do the work for free.

The state bar emphasizes different points in the timeline of events.

“The lawsuit filed by Mr. Dunn is baseless,” the statement says, “and falsely suggests that the termination decision was motivated by the receipt of letters from [Dunn’s] attorney Mark Geragos stating that unnamed whistleblowers had complaints regarding state bar officials and operations.”

The letters from Geragos never identified Dunn as one of the whistleblowers and even alleged that staffers in the executive director’s office were shredding documents, the statement said. In addition, the whistleblower letters were sent after the bar’s Board of Trustees had authorized an investigation of Dunn, and after it had received the report by the investigating law firm, Munger, Tolles & Olson. The investigation was spurred by two internal complaints against Dunn by high-level employees, the bar said.

Munger Tolles was hired through a request for proposal process, and its ties to a bar trustee consisted of her work with one of the lead partners in a 150-plus person government office 15 years ago, the statement said. The trustee was not involved in the selection or hiring of the firm, though the Board of Trustees did approve the scope of work and budget.

The law firm’s investigation started in August, and the results were presented to the Board of Trustees on Oct. 17 and 30, the statement said.

Additional complaints against Dunn were received, and the Board of Trustees decided Nov. 7 to notify Dunn that it was exercising its rights to fire him, the statement says. The bar announced Dunn’s firing in a public statement Nov. 13.

“At no time prior to Nov. 13 was Joe Dunn ever identified as a whistleblower, and he never brought any such claims to the board,” the statement says. “Indeed, it’s bewildering to hear Mr. Dunn claim he is a whistleblower since as the executive who is head of the entire organization he is responsible for managing operations and the over 500 employees, and he only belatedly raised claims after he was given notice of termination of his employment agreement, and after a settlement discussion with his counsel at the Girardi & Keese firm reached an impasse on Nov. 12.” Dunn was never identified as a whistleblower during those discussions, the bar said.

The Munger Tolles report was later leaked to the Daily Journal and the Recorder. According to those publications, the report accused Dunn of misleading the Board of Trustees about the state chief justice’s reservations about proposals affecting the bar, including a proposed move of the bar’s headquarters from San Francisco to Sacramento. The report also took issue with Dunn’s claims about funding for a trip to Mongolia by bar officials to help set up a lawyer oversight system.

Geragos said Dunn didn’t see the Munger Tolles report before it was leaked and he never got a chance to refute the conclusions. He “categorically denies” its allegations, Geragos told the Daily Journal.

Publications with initial coverage of Dunn’s lawsuit included the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, the Daily Journal (sub. req.) and the Recorder (sub. req.), which said that Dunn’s four-year tenure with the state bar “has been marked by tumult and turnover.”

The Recorder pointed out that chief trial counsel Kim was “hired on Dunn’s watch” after he fired four veteran prosecutors and had a role in the departure of Kim’s predecessor. Dunn’s aim had been to revamp the disciplinary process after a state audit found that the disciplinary backlog was not included in the bar’s annual discipline report.

Dunn, a former state senator, said in the suit that it had been filed with “deep sadness and a heavy heart.”

“However, given the glaring injustices, unethical conduct and massive cover-up that has crippled the state bar’s ability to function, this action has become necessary to restore the public trust and confidence in the state bar, to restore the integrity of the organization, and to vindicate Senator Dunn’s rights,” the suit said.

Dunn had also alleged in the suit that Kim failed “to proactively investigate and prosecute” alleged unauthorized practice of law by notaries and others, and that State Bar President Craig Holden wanted Dunn fired “part of an effort to usurp executive authority in the state bar.” He also claimed the bar had targeted others with “various degrees of discipline and retaliation because they corroborated” Dunn’s allegations and joined his whistleblower notices.

Holden denied any interest in taking over the duties of executive director in an interview with the Daily Journal, saying he has “zero interest” in the job.

Prior coverage: “Fired California bar leader sues ‘with heavy heart,’ alleges ‘egregious improprieties’ ”

Subsequent coverage: “Fired California bar leader allegedly misled trustees, leaked report says”

Updated on Nov. 20 to include subsequent coverage about the Munger Tolles report.

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