Vendor lawyer Hall helps county official buy house
June 2, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN and KAREN VELIE
A top county official’s Arroyo Grande home was jointly purchased by her and the family trusts of local lawyer Clay Hall, whose firm receives hundreds of thousands of dollars annually as the vendor responsible for the majority of San Luis Obispo County’s outside legal work.
Gail Wilcox, assistant county administrator, owns one-half undivided interest in the house on Blackberry Avenue, according to county property documents. She took a $417,000 mortgage in April 2007 to purchase her fifty percent share of the residence. Clay Hall, his wife Kristy A. Hall, and several of their family trusts own the other half. The total purchase price, according to records, was $580,000.
Wilcox acknowledged the arrangement Monday.
“This is outside of work,” she said, adding that she perceives no conflict of interest. She said she has no direct authority over payments made by the county to Hall’s law firm, Hall, Hieatt & Connely of San Luis Obispo.
Hall also denied a conflict, describing the Wilcox property deal as “making financial sense for my family.”
Hall’s firm has provided no-bid legal work for the county for more than two decades. The county presently has about 32 legal cases placed with outside, private law firms; Hall is handling three-fourths of those, said County Counsel spokesperson Warren Jenson.
A month before the Blackberry Avenue deed was granted, Wilcox’s boss, County Administrator David Edge, put a proposal before supervisors purporting to “review and update” the county’s conflict of interest codes. The resolution, placed on the supervisors’ consent calendar and approved without dissent on March 20, 2007, also contains language specifically exempting Wilcox’s residence from the conflict regulations. The exemption appears to circumvent California law governing public officials’ conduct and defining conflicts of interest.
San Luis Obispo County officials have adopted a conflict of interest code patterned after the state Government Code. Both require financial disclosures by elected and appointed county officials and specific employees. The state code prohibits any county employee from benefitting from any contract approved by his or her department.
County Administrator David Edge said Monday that he doesn’t see a conflict of interest in the Wilcox-Hall arrangement.
“I think it is not a problem. She [Wilcox] is not involved… Deb [Hossli, county human resources director] is in charge and she reports to me,” said Edge.
Hossli, who promised to provide financial and contract information for reporters early Monday regarding county payments to Hall’s law firm, was instead “in meetings” and unavailable by publication time.
Wilcox, who takes down more than $200,000 a year in salary and benefits, said Monday she is no longer the county’s chief budget officer. Other county officials, however, told UncoveredSLO.com Monday that they currently believe she still is.
Edge suggested “it was probably County Counsel” that made the initial proposal for the conflict of interest resolution changes.
Wilcox received the grant deed to her new house on May 23, 2007. On that document, she is listed as “a married woman.” She was separated from David Wilcox around the time of purchase of her Blackberry Avenue house. The neatly-groomed, single-story, 1,600-square-foot residence has three bedrooms and two baths and is located in an area of homes with a value range of $550,000 to $750,000.
Wilcox’s required statement of economic interests, filed late with the county in April, lists no reportable assets for calendar year 2007. She received a stern letter threatening sanctions from county clerk-recorder Julie Rodewald for missing the filing deadline.
SLO County employees started work on revisions for the conflict of interest code in February 2007. The result was a “resolution updating the conflict of interest code for the county administrative office to reflect two title changes due to classification changes.” In Edge’s subsequent discussion with supervisors, he said the “administrative office has made changes to their conflict of interest code. The board of supervisors is responsible for approving conflict of interest codes for county departments… and therefore [it is] necessary to approve department’s designated position list.”
According to Edge, the conflict code revision also was necessary to accommodate a change in Wilcox’s title, from “Deputy County Administrator” to “Assistant County Administrator.” Along with that change was a less conspicuous alteration; newly adopted requirements for Wilcox’s conflict reporting now specifically exclude this particular provision:
“Investments in, and income from, any business entity doing business with the County and engaged in (a) the acquisition, sale or lease or development of real property; (b) provision of insurance brokerage or consulting services; or (c) provision of consulting services of the type which have, in the past two years, or which with reasonable foreseeability, may be utilized in the next one-year period by the filer’s particular division within the Department.”
When asked if the new resolution’s wording might refer specifically to her own residence, Wilcox said, “I’m not aware of that.”
Wilcox said, “I don’t think this is a conflict of interest because I don’t have any authority over Clay. I don’t deal directly with Clay Hall contracts. Deb Hossli deals with them, she signs off on Clay’s bills. I’m not involved in securing his services. That goes through Deb (Hossli) and David (Edge).”
Wilcox was asked if she thought her financial arrangement with Hall posed a potential conflict of interest.
“Nope,” she said. “I even checked it out with my boss before I did the deal. He said there was no conflict.”
She said she couldn’t recall if that particular exchange was verbal or written.
When asked if he perceived a conflict of interest, Hall replied that the house on Blackberry Avenue “is my wife’s investment. She wanted to get into the real estate investment market. The house was purchased jointly. She has half.” Hall then added, “And [Wilcox] pays rent. But she has half, too.” Hall offered no explanation regarding the rental agreement.
Edge said the Hall firm was picked by the county in “a decision of risk management years ago.” Edge said he did not know if “a specific contract” with Clay exists. County officials have been unable to locate such a contract. A Ventura County claims administrator, Carl Warren and Co., receives county disbursements to pay Hall’s firm. That contract also was unavailable.
Jenson said Hall’s law firm “has been doing the bulk of the [county’s outside] work, and they’re good at it.”
Jenson added, “I don’t think competitive bidding works well in professional services.” And he said Hall’s firm “is the only experienced law firm specializing in this type of work.”
Asked why his firm gets so much work from the county, Hall said, “We’ve been doing cases on and off since the early 1980s. We are the only pure defense firm in the county. The others do plaintiff work; you get conflicts when you do both.”
Tags:, conflict, county officials, San Luis Obispo County