California Attorney General Jerry Brown filed suit Wednesday against former and current city officials in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell who collected bloated salaries - a move that places recently appointed city attorney James M. Casso in a position to both defend and prosecute those same officials.
But Mr. Casso’s own past, which includes close ties to Bell city officials, questionable service to other municipal clients and involvement in a Clinton-era political scandal, raises questions about whether he is suited to restore the public’s trust.
He was hired last month based on what city officials described as “his extensive experience, expertise as a city attorney and his outstanding reputation as a community leader.”
On Sept. 3, the city council - whose members also collected inflated salaries and still hold power - unanimously voted to authorize him to investigate and prosecute any actions that led to the salary crisis.
Now in the wake of Mr. Brown’s lawsuit, which asks the court to appoint a receiver and seeks the return of any excessive compensation and a reduction in city officials’ pension benefits, Mr. Casso could also be put into the role of defending many of the targets of the state’s legal action.
Asked about his potential dual role in Bell’s affairs, Mr. Casso said he had not read the attorney general’s lawsuit. He said he could see the benefit of conserving resources and that he would continue to advise his client to cooperate fully with all investigations.
“There’s an interest in getting to the bottom of what is going on,” he said.
Yet his experience includes a number of questionable matters, including his role in a controversial Clinton administration commutation of the sentence of a convicted drug dealer - after the dealer’s father paid first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s brother $200,000 to lobby the White House.
According to a 2002 House Committee on Government Reform report, Mr. Casso “emerged as a significant figure” in the effort by Los Angeles businessman Horacio Vignali to free his son Carlos from serving a 15-year prison sentence on a major federal drug trafficking conviction in Minnesota.
The report states that Mr. Casso in 2000 arranged a meeting between Mr. Vignali and Hugh Rodham, Mrs. Clinton’s brother, who received a $200,000 check at the meeting and pressed for the younger Vignali’s commutation in the waning days of the Clinton presidency.
The House Committee report states that during the congressional investigation, Mr. Casso declined to answer questions and later invoked attorney-client privilege based on his relationship with Mr. Vignali.
“This representation was in direct conflict with earlier assurances given by Casso to committee staff, namely that he never represented the Vignalis,” states the report.
Mr. Casso declined to comment on the Vignali matter.
But his involvement in the affair is a red flag for government watchdogs who are concerned about Bell’s future.
“His failure to cooperate with a legal body raises a cloud of suspicion,” said Jaime A. Regalado, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs.
“The city needs an attorney whose name doesn’t appear in scandal sheets, someone the city and its people can buy into,” he said. “To have someone with a cloudy past doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Mr. Casso’s ties to current and former Bell officials also raise questions about conflicts of interest.
He was handpicked to be city attorney by Bell City Administrator Pedro Carrillo, who replaced former city administrator Robert Rizzo after revelations that Mr. Rizzo was making an $800,000 annual salary.
Mr. Carrillo, an early apologist for the high salaries, once worked for Mr. Rizzo and collected campaign contributions from him during a failed 2002 bid for the California Assembly.
Prior to that, Mr. Carrillo and Mr. Casso served together in Washington as top aides to members of Congress from California.
Cristina Garcia, a local activist with the group BASTA - the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse - said she was particularly concerned that Mr. Casso’s city attorney contract has him billing the city by the hour for his services. It also allows him to bring in staff members that can bill the city on an hourly basis with no cap on expenses.
Mr. Casso resigned from a position as city attorney in the nearby city of Pico Rivera in 2007 amid statements by city officials that he quit rather than be fired. The Whittier Daily News reported that the city had to transfer $381,000 into the city attorney’s budget just to make it through the year.
But his service has also been criticized in other cities he represented.
In Lynwood, Calif., where he was appointed interim city attorney in 2003 after officials there were besieged by criminal fraud allegations, Mr. Casso drew fire for resisting a recall effort against a councilman who later was convicted in federal court. Mr. Casso was accused in that instance of thwarting the will of the voters, according to news reports.
Mr. Casso insisted that his legal judgment is never clouded by political considerations.
“I’m never afraid to give advice on any legal matter and I don’t take politics into consideration,” he said. “If they like my advice, fine. If not, we move on. My job is to provide the best unvarnished legal advice possible.”