Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 | Legal expenses for the Orange County Fair Board have skyrocketed, with taxpayers footing the bill for at least $605,338.98 in billings from the law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips since late 2009.

In comparison, the board spent a total of $194,281 on legal expenses from 2007 to 2009 when the state attorney general’s office acted as the Fair Board’s attorney, as it does for other fairs across the state.

In December 2009, Jerry Brown, then attorney general, essentially resigned as the Fair Board’s attorney, citing the secretive deliberations among board members who sought to purchase the Orange County Fairgrounds through a nonprofit they controlled.

“Given the seemingly intertwined and potentially conflicting interests of the District, the District Board members and the nonprofit, we have determined that we should withdraw from providing legal services,” wrote Chief Assistant Attorney General Matthew Rodriquez in a Dec. 1, 2009, memo to board members.

Rodriquez’s memo advised Fair Board members they would be on their own — and thus require a private-sector attorney — until all issues regarding the sale of the fairgrounds had been resolved.

Since that time, up to three attorneys working for Manatt, Phelps & Phillips have attended monthly fair board meetings. Among them is former Assemblyman Tom Umberg, who now chairs the state High-Speed Rail Authority.

The Fair Board has paid higher legal bills despite not being involved in a lawsuit since the private attorneys took over. The Board was the focus of a probe by the Orange County district attorney and an ongoing state Fair Political Practices Commission inquiry.

In the most recent audit of the Orange County Fair and Event Center’s finances, auditors noted that although the center is subject to various claims and legal actions related to its operations, “the DAA’s [District Agricultural Association’s] management believes none of which will have a material adverse effect on its financial position or results of operations.”

This week, Fair Board members were scheduled to consider extending the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips contract. The contract, however, was pulled from consideration just as news media inquiries began.

“There’s no reason for any action,” said fair CEO Steve Beazley, who withdrew the contract. He said the firm’s contract expires in February and estimates there is about $45,000 left in the authorization for the current contract. He doesn’t expect charges to exceed that mark.

Yet the firm charged $71,315.27 for services in December of 2010.

Beazely acknowledged that the firm is much more expensive than the rates charged by the state attorney general. “It’s not the Fair Board’s choice,” he said. “The decision is solely in the hands of attorney general.”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris would not talk about any plans her agency has to resume representing the Fair Board.

“It is not appropriate for us to comment on the scope of our office’s representation of the 32nd DAA,” said Lynda Gledhill, spokeswoman for the attorney general. “We have been closely monitoring the situation and continue to do so.”

Beazley complimented Manatt, Phelps & Phillips as “able and professional,” saying they had assisted the Fair Board in dealing with numerous legal issues related to the sale of the fairgrounds as well as tense negotiations with Tel-Phil Enterprises over the swap meet operations.

“Let the lawsuits begin” is how former Fair Board President David Ellis announced the termination of the Tel-Phil lease on the swap meet last September, indicating that legal spending might rise again.

Fair Board members, however,  seemed poised before Thursday’s monthly public meeting to rescind that termination.

Fair Board Chairwoman Joyce Tucker, who took over the reigns from Ellis, said she wants her tenure to be known for peace, civility and transparency as opposed to the heated debate, secret negotiations and controversy of the past two years.

“The sale is behind us,” Tucker said. “We’re trying to move forward.”

There remains the FPPC investigation into the secret contracts made by the Fair Board with former state Senator Dick Ackerman’s law firm — Nossaman LLP — and lobbyist Platinum Advisors.

There have been mounting questions about how those contracts were authorized without public votes as well as how billings were directed to existing contracts that were entirely unrelated to the sale of the fairgrounds.

The FPPC recently confirmed that their investigation is still underway.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly reported that Fair Board attorneys Manatt, Phelps and Phillips billed the board $71,315.27 for a single day. That amount was for a period of one month. We regret the error.

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