(Star Advertiser) Volcanic Ash: Honolulu Hale legal eagles flap about like Chicken Little

Once again, the Caldwell administration pleaded with the City Council last week for high-priced outside lawyers to fight federal corruption probes, claiming it lacks expertise in-house.

It’s a specialty you’d think they’d want to cultivate, given ongoing federal criminal investigations involving Oahu rail, the Honolulu Police Department, the Prosecutor’s Office, the city legal department itself and heaven knows what else.

In this instance, the Council approved paying the San Francisco firm Farella Braun & Martel $225,000 more to shield city emails and documents seized by federal law enforcers, with only Councilwomen Kymberly Pine and Heidi Tsuneyoshi voting against. The firm got another $100,000 in March.

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The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has asked, unsuccessfully so far, for $300,000 to hire a different San Francisco law firm to fight federal subpoenas for minutes of its closed meetings.

These seamy dodges by the city in response to wide-ranging federal corruption investigations into its officials and agencies insult taxpayers by heaping exorbitant legal expenses on top of the incalculable cost of the wrongdoing that set off the investigations.

The administration and Council, which considered the latest request for outside attorneys in a closed meeting, have been notably vague about what records were seized in the execution of a January search warrant and which city employees are involved.

Councilman Ron Menor told Honolulu Civil Beat the San Francisco firm was hired to shield information that may be “protected by the attorney-client work product privileges and potentially the right to privacy.”

The city claims none of the 48 attorneys on staff in the Corporation Counsel’s office is qualified to represent city employees in the matter.

This is nonsense. Any halfway able attorney should be able to crack a law book and advise on how to respond to a warrant or subpoena, which in this case should be to tell the truth and cooperate fully in helping to clean out the rot in our city government.

Outside specialists only help evade; the uncomfortable feeling is that hiring them is less about privacy or attorney-client privilege than monitoring what city employees tell investigators and deterring them from implicating higher-ups.

Those who use city computers and email for illicit purposes have no right to privacy protection.

When the city is required to provide employees legal representation and staff lawyers have conflicts, there’s no obligation to hire top-shelf firms.

The city should have a list of local attorneys available for a reasonable fixed fee, as the federal courts do when the public defender isn’t available. Those wanting a different lawyer can pay for it themselves.

It’s galling we can’t put these questions to the top city attorney, Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, who’s a target of a federal case and on paid leave at $165,000 a year.

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