Political Agenda Triggering the Misuse of Federal Funds or Attorney-Client Privilege? California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. refuses to turn over its client files.

Political Agenda Triggering the Misuse of Federal Funds or Attorney-Client Privilege?  California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. refuses to turn over its client files.

In 2005, the Inspector General for Legal Services Corp (“LSC”) investigated an anonymous complaint alleging that California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (“CRLA”) misused its grant money by focusing on “impact work” to advance a social and political agenda. The complaint suggested that CRLA had diverted its already scarce resources to farm worker and Latino issues, and it impermissibly solicited clients while engaging in lobbying and political activity.

This conduct amounts to a deliberate misuse of federal funds, as well as an action detrimental to the clients whose legal services were denied or pushed aside by CRLA. CRLA has vehemently denied these allegations and has refused to turn over any information to LSC, invoking the work-product doctrine.

In 2007, the U.S. Justice Department sued CRLA to attempt to enforce the LSC administrative subpoena that requested the release of CRLA’s client information and internal policy documents. Last November, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled for the disclosure of the documents. CRLA has appealed Judge Sullivan’s ruling and contends that the ongoing investigation is politically motivated and meritless. CRLA argues further that the disclosing these documents violates both the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine, and it will substantially undercut the ability of LSC organizations to provide legal services to members of its vulnerable client community. This hotly debated issue represents the ever-present discord between government oversight and state-based rules on attorney professional responsibility. The federal government demands documents that are protected by California state law, and releasing it blatantly disregards the CRLA attorneys’ duty of nondisclosure. Yet, soliciting clients, focusing on fee-generating cases, and failing to provide basic legal services to other clients in need violates federal law. The information sought is critical to LSC’s comprehensive and just analysis of these allegations.

CRLA’s situation would not normally arise in a private for-profit law firm, which leaves those in the legal system wondering: Should low-income clients who lack the financial means to retain a private attorney expect lesser rights to confidentiality? Should legal aid attorneys in nonprofit organizations expect that their work-product documents are entitled to less protection than those of private attorneys?

For more information see http://fresnoalliance.com/wordpress/?p=4285.