County counsel officially files lawsuit as supervisors ink new agreement with accused law firm

Supervisors retroactively OK $1.4 million in payments to outside firm

Jeff Blanck, the Humboldt County counsel, has officially filed a lawsuit against the Human Resources director and the county administrative officer, as well as the law firm he says aided in his targeting. (Shomik Mukherjee — The Times-Standard file)
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Jeff Blanck, Humboldt County’s top legal representation, has filed suit against the county’s Human Resources director, its administrative officer and the outside counsel that Blanck says aided the county in targeting him for whistleblowing.

Blanck is suing the county employees and outside legal counsel individually. Separately, he has already filed claims that he was targeted by the county for his Jewish heritage, and that the county Board of Supervisors violated open meeting laws when it decided in March to place him on paid administrative leave.

Blanck is seeking monetary and punitive damages against Human Resources director Lisa DeMatteo, county administrative officer Amy Nilsen and the county’s outside legal counsel, the law firm of Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore.

Blanck says he was placed on paid leave for two complaints against him that suddenly arose after he pointed out that DeMatteo was using the outside law firm for a litany of purposes and denying him the chance to review the subsequent payments. In essence, Blanck says, he was targeted for raising questions about DeMatteo’s payments.

“Defendant DeMatteo was acting outside the course and scope of her employment by violating state law and falsely reporting matters to management about Plaintiff Blanck with the purpose of preventing his inquiries regarding the use of (Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore),” the suit reads.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, Blanck says, entered closed session at a March meeting and voted to place him on leave, but didn’t report the action afterward, which would be a violation of open meeting laws.

Blanck is alleging “intentional interference with an economic advantage,” civil conspiracy and infliction of emotional distress.

The county appears to have taken some of Blanck’s claims into account. At its Tuesday meeting, the Board of Supervisors signed a new agreement with the outside firm Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore, placing a cap on payments through June 2020 at $150,000.

This follows several years of the county paying the firm increasingly higher amounts. In 2018, the county paid out over $350,000, and from the start of January to the end of April of this year alone, the county paid the firm over $190,000.

The board also seems to have put to paper the very process that Blanck says he insisted upon. Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore will now send monthly statements to the acting county counsel, where previously, Blanck said, it was sending its billing statements to DeMatteo.

It was speaking out about this, Blanck said, that resulted in the county targeting him in the first place.

The supervisors also took the step of retroactively approving past payments made out to the firm. It’s unclear how many payments the board ratified and how much they were worth. In the agenda item for the action, county staff lists out the county’s entire history of payments to the firm, which total more than $1.4 million.

Amy Nilsen, far left, is one of the targets of Blanck’s lawsuit. (Shomik Mukherjee — The Times-Standard file)

“What they’re attempting to do is justify all the payments to (Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore) because they didn’t have the board approve them,” Blanck said in an interview.

The firm’s original 2008 agreement with the county was signed by then-personnel director Rick Haeg.

“(Haeg) had no authority to bind the county,” Blanck said. “If (the outside firm) are the experts they say they are, they should have known that.”

Not all of the payments are ones the county needed to ratify, the staff report states — leaving it ambiguous just how much of the over $1.4 million had previously gone unapproved.

“In order to be comprehensive, the ratification request includes all (Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore) payments since 2008, although litigation payments have been previously authorized and other payments fall within the consortium contract,” the report reads.

In a closed session today, the board also retained legal representation for DeMatteo and Nilsen. Mitchell Brisso, an attorney based in Eureka, will represent the two employees in the Blanck lawsuit.

Blanck said he was surprised to learn the county is retaining representation on their behalf since he’s pursuing action against DeMatteo and Nilsen — along with the firm — as individuals.

“I’m suing them individually, outside the scope of their employment,” Blanck said. “They weren’t hired to do what they did.”

Internal county processes restrict county staff from speaking subjectively to media. In response to Blanck’s lawsuit, county spokesperson Sean Quincey said:

“Due to pending litigation, and in order to preserve the integrity of that process, the county will not discuss this issue in the press. However, the county is committed to operating in a transparent, fiscally responsible manner where the public’s interest is at heart.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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