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The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday directed staff to hire an outside attorney to represent Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez during an internal investigation into the county’s fiscal management operations. However, that attorney likely won’t be the one Paz Dominguez specifically requested: namely, former Eureka City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson.
Instead, the board voted 4-1, with Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone dissenting, to have County Counsel Jefferson Billingsley make the hire. Amelia Burroughs, an attorney from the Eureka-based firm Janssen Malloy, has been identified as the top choice, but if she’s unavailable Billingsley has the go-ahead to choose someone else.
The hearing began with Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass, who’s now serving as board chair, inviting Paz Dominguez to explain why she wants Day-Wilson to represent her.
In a lengthy prepared statement, the auditor-controller offered a wide-ranging justification, relaying her perspective on various twists and turns in the months-long conflict between her office and other county departments.
Over the course of her statement, Paz Dominguez leveled a number of serious accusations at staff and the supervisors. Appearing via Zoom, she argued that the County Administrative Office and Human Resources Department lack the authority to investigate her independently elected office. She also said that she has been singled out, presumed guilty and publicly shamed in an attempt to discredit her. And she accused Billingsley of lying to the court — a charge he vehemently denied.
Paz Dominguez said that when she learned that an investigation had been launched into the county’s financial management practices, including those of her own office, she responded with a series of questions for both Billingsley and Human Resources Director Linda Le — questions that weren’t answered to her satisfaction.
More than once during her comments, Bass interjected, asking Paz Dominguez to “fast forward” and “get to the gist.”
But the Auditor-Controller said the entirety of her statement was relevant and important. She brought up a lawsuit filed in federal court more than two years ago by an anonymous plaintiff. The suit, which concerned FAA regulations, accused the Public Works Department of diverting revenue from the Aviation Department and alleged that there were attempts cover up findings from an outside consultant.
“Yet I am the one summoned for a special meeting,” Paz Dominguez said.
Regarding the lawsuit she brought up, Deputy County Administrative Officer Sean Quincey told the Outpost, “The Aviation Department is working through an FAA land use inspection report that deals with this issue. In Oct. 2019, the Courts granted to stay any action on the litigation until Dec. 31, 2020 while Aviation works through the FAA’s recommended actions. On Dec. 23, the Court extended the stay until June 30, 2021.”
Continuing her statement, Paz Dominguez said the current investigation is clearly “tainted,” and her office won’t participate without adequate representation. Her choice, she reiterated, is Day-Wilson. She went on to ask why the County Administrative Office hasn’t been investigated for the fraud alleged in the lawsuit, why Sheriff William Honsal hasn’t been investigated for his alleged failure to enforce COVID regulations and why Supervisor Rex Bohn wasn’t investigated for the racist joke he told in 2019.
After close to 20 minutes, Bass cut her off, saying the conversation had gotten off track.
County Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen said the allegations of fraud and corruption were all untrue, and Bohn expressed annoyance at the various accusations before quickly making a motion to adopt the staff recommendation and move toward hiring Burroughs to represent Paz Dominguez at a reduced rate of $195 per hour. However, no fellow supervisor chimed in with a second to his motion.
What commenced was a messy and often contentious deliberation with both sides questioning the intentions and rights of the other. Bass wondered aloud whether Paz Dominguez had effectively threatened litigation when she said that if the board didn’t agree to appoint Day-Wilson, she’d pursue an alternate route to hire her.
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson agreed that the comment seemed to amount to a threat of litigation, though Paz Dominguez insisted it was not.
Wilson responded that the matter is already the subject of legal proceedings before a judge. “If it’s not a threat of litigation, I don’t know what it is,” he said.
“I’m seeing now that we’re all interpreting litigation a little differently,” Paz Dominguez said. She explained that her idea was to resort to something “more procedural” than litigious.
“If it goes to a judge, it’s litigation,” Wilson said.
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, appearing in her first meeting since winning election, asked Paz Dominguez to explain why she’s opposed to Burroughs as an attorney, and Bass asked whether Paz Dominguez would be willing to accept anyone besides Day-Wilson.
“I believe I am entitled to effective representation,” the auditor-controller responded. “I have found I can receive that best from attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson.”
At one point, Supervisor Wilson expressed concern, based on letters already receive from Day-Wilson, that the scope of her representation would “creep” into matters unrelated to the investigation at hand. Bass also voiced hesitancy to hire Day-Wilson, saying, “That particular counsel has become proficient at suing public agencies.”
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone attempted to change the tenor of the meeting, saying the situation appears to be sinking further into conflict each week because people are operating from a place of fear. “Frankly, I wish we could just forget about all these lawyers and just cooperate … ,” he said. “I don’t want to continue doubling down on conflict. I would very much like if we could lower our guard here.”
However, he also said that if Paz Dominguez wants to hire Day-Wilson she should be free to do so — as long as she pays the bills herself.
Madrone speculated that the investigation will arrive at fairly benign conclusions — probably that staff is working hard but that Paz Dominguez’s justified demands for more documentation of expenditures has “been a rough change for everybody.”
Bohn renewed his motion to go with staff recommendation with the understanding that if Burroughs doesn’t take the gig, Billingsley can find someone else. Wilson seconded the motion.
At one point in the discussion, Madrone asked the motion-maker (Bohn) if he’d consider directing staff to hire Day-Wilson at the rate of $195 an hour, which is significantly less than the $400 per hour she’s been charging thus far.
“The only reason I can see for not doing that is fear that [Paz Dominguez] will come at us for other reasons,” Madrone said. “I don’t want to operate from that place of fear.”
Chuckling, Bohn said he’s not afraid of anything; he just wants to get this situation moving forward. And as for decreasing conflict, he said, “Nothing creates conflict more than not paying a bill.”
Wilson said he agrees with Madrone’s call for everyone to “lay down our guns and move forward,” and while he agrees that ideally everyone should be allowed to pick their own attorney, “When the public’s paying for it, sometimes we don’t get that choice, necessarily.”
Eventually, the board arrived at its final version of a motion. The County Counsel’s Office will select an outside attorney to represent Paz Dominguez. Billingsley noted that the board has made clear in previous meetings that it would prefer not to hire Day-Wilson, so if Burroughs proves unavailable or unwilling to take the case, he’ll search for someone else altogether.