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County officials pull back from relationship with law firm following Wilcox scandal

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SO LONG? :  County officials are distancing themselves from the law firm Hall, Hieatt & Connely after attorney Clay Hall got caught in the turmoil over former deputy county administrator Gail Wilcox. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • SO LONG? : County officials are distancing themselves from the law firm Hall, Hieatt & Connely after attorney Clay Hall got caught in the turmoil over former deputy county administrator Gail Wilcox.
Ripples from the firing of former deputy county administrator Gail Wilcox have reached the SLO law firm of Hall, Hieatt & Connely, which the county has engaged for at least a decade.

 

County officials said they will soon open bids to other law firms for representation, to shake up what has amounted to a no-bid contract with Hall, Hieatt & Connely. The intent is to establish a panel of multiple outside legal counsels.

 

They denied there was any impropriety in a business relationship between the deputy administrator and Clay Hall, who is a partner in the firm, but characterized the search for law firms as a move toward more government openness. Describing it as an investment, Hall and his wife paid for
half of the mortgage on Wilcox’s Arroyo Grande home.

 

“It’s safe to say that the board [of supervisors] is certainly in the position of expecting all employees to display exemplary behavior,” Supervisor Adam Hill said when asked about the matter. Despite the recent bout of firings that seem to say otherwise, he added, “We think most [employees] do.”

 

Hall and Wilcox’s financial relationship was solidified in late 2006 when Hall and his wife invested in a home mortgage with Wilcox—the home is listed as being worth $500,000 on the county’s assessment roll. Hall’s firm has represented the county for as long as most county officials can remember. They’re also one of the only independent firms to litigate for the county.

 

Human Resources Director Tami Douglas-Schatz said SLO County is one of the only counties in the state not to have a panel of law firms at its disposal. Hall’s firm might not be removed from the soon-to-be formed panel altogether; the company will be allowed to make a bid, too.

 

Hall said the firm planned to submit a bid. Sounding casual and unworried by the change, he said it was a good move for the county: “It’s probably something they should have done a long time ago.”

 

Asked about his co-ownership of Wilcox’s home, he declined to comment because of Wilcox’s pending sexual harassment lawsuit against the county and former county administrator David Edge.

 

Few can say exactly how long Hall, Hieatt & Connely has represented the county because there’s nothing on paper; the firm doesn’t have a contract. It may seem like a single-sourced, no-bid agreement, but County Counsel Warren Jensen said the law firm was repeatedly chosen on a case-by-case basis. Jensen described the partnership as something that “evolved into a situation.”

 

Hall, Hieatt & Connely is an offshoot of another firm that began defending the county as early as the 1980s. Originally under the name Hoge, Fenton, Appel, and Jones, members of that firm eventually
rose in the ranks and the company became Hall, Hieatt & Connely in the late 1990s, Jensen said.

 

- HOW MUCH?:  Hall, Hieatt & Connely has billed the county and its insurance carrier about $1.8 million since July 2006, according to county Risk Management. The firm billed $35,570 per case on average. -
  • HOW MUCH?: Hall, Hieatt & Connely has billed the county and its insurance carrier about $1.8 million since July 2006, according to county Risk Management. The firm billed $35,570 per case on average.
“At this point in time the county is just sort of taking a look at all our processes,” said Assistant County Counsel Rita Neal, who was herself an attorney for Hoge, Fenton before working for the county. She added there has been talk of diversifying the county’s legal portfolio for a while. Jensen said the decision to look for other law firms began as far back as last year.

 

But it wasn’t until Hall’s name popped up in an independent investigation of Wilcox—now dubbed the Robertson report, after Oakland attorney Sarah E. Robertson—that they pulled the trigger.

 

 “I think you have a new board [of supervisors] that is much more interested in opening up a whole bunch of things,” Jensen said. “And then we have Clay Hall having some involvement with Gail Wilcox in that house deal and we just felt like we should air the process out and see what’s out there.”

 

 Despite the decision, he said Hall’s firm has produced “outstanding results for the county.”

 

In e-mail exchanges between Wilcox and Hall, the two often discussed their shared mortgage. They organized their payments in such e-mails and sometimes joked about the house, according to Wilcox’s e-mail records obtained by New Times.

 

“Hey I’m getting jealous,” Hall e-mailed Wilcox last September. “Remember I bought you a house. Don’t two time me like that.”

 

In e-mails from the Robertson report, Edge mentioned Wilcox’s shared mortgage in a letter he wrote regarding her relationship with former Deputy Sheriffs Association leader Tony Perry.

 

“The dynamic in this scenario is different from that with Clay Hall because … we’d taken action ahead of time to shield you from any ‘real’ problems with the business deal—there was never a chance that it could rise to a level that endangered your job,” Edge wrote.

 

Wilcox was fired over her relationship with Perry, not Hall, but it may have hurt Hall’s job anyway.

 

Staff writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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