A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge will allow former City Industry Director Paul Philips to testify about instructions he received from the City Council of Industry in closed sessions, a ruling according to his lawyers could lead to his exoneration from allegations that he aided in the embezzlement of $20 million of public funds.
Judge Michael Pastor’s decision, however, will not only prevent the public from hearing Philips’ testimony regarding these secret discussions, but will also exclude prosecutors from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office as well as attorneys representing the city of industry who have argued that he should not be allowed to talk about these issues.
“This is certainly an extraordinary situation, unprecedented as far as I’m concerned,” Pastor said during the hearing.
The court’s decision is a balancing act, in which the judge had to weigh Philips’ federal right to due process against the city council‘s right to confidentiality of industry.
Under California law, closed sessions, in which the city council meets outside of public view on certain limited matters, are sacred and attendees of such meetings are not permitted to share details with anyone unless the governing body votes to authorize it. A city council can waive confidentiality requirements at any time, but the industry has refused to do so in the criminal case against Philips, even though the pastor himself noted that his refusal is at odds with the fact that the city is a victim of the alleged crime. .
The court is in uncharted territory, according to Pastor, because the existing case law does not provide a framework for how to handle a conflict between constitutional rights and closed-door privileges. Once he hears Philips’ testimony in private, Pastor said he will decide if the information is sufficient to allow him to take further action.
Philips will be allowed to testify separately in open court on other matters, Pastor said.
The industry’s refusal to waive its closed-door hearing privilege has drawn criticism from the defense and prosecution, both of whom have argued that failure to provide the information could violate the Philips’ right to a fair trial. Philips lawyers Joe Weimortz and Steve Cooley argued the case should be dropped if Philips was not given the right to respond to allegations that it lacked the authority of the city council to pay a part of the $20 million spent. on the solar project.
The city council approved the Tres Hermanos solar project, which initially proposed a 450 megawatt solar farm on a slice of land between Chino Hills and Diamond Bar, behind closed doors in May 2016 and did not vote publicly for more than a year. year, although millions of dollars have been paid to the developer in the meantime. Only about $11.5 million of the $20 million disbursed was on warrant registries publicly approved by city council.
“We believe there is exculpatory evidence based on what happened in those closed sessions,” Cooley said. “It is shameful that the city, through its very effective advice, has erected a wall between the innocence of Mr. Philips and the actions of the city in the Tres Hermanos project which it approved.”
Weimortz and Cooley allege Philips only carried out city council orders and were unaware that developer William Barkett misappropriated more than $8 million from the project to spend on personal items, including a wedding of 2 million dollars for his daughter on the Côte d’Azur. .
“I believe the city got into a legal mess and at some point Mr. Barkett turned it into a robbery,” Weimortz said.
Industry City lawyers argued that Philips should not be allowed to speak about any issues related to the closed session. The city went so far as to send a letter to Cooley alleging that Philips could lose a severance package he received from the city when he was fired in 2018 if he testifies about inside information. The Tres Hermanos project was halted in 2018 due to expense concerns.
City officials declined to say why they wanted to protect confidential discussions regarding negotiations of a long-dead project on land the city no longer owns. Industry sold the Tres Hermanos Ranch to a joint authority led by Diamond Bar, Chino Hills and itself.
During Thursday’s hearing, attorney Vicki Podberesky argued that preventing Philips from testifying behind closed doors would not violate his right to a fair trial as he is currently in a preliminary hearing, which does not establish whether he is guilty or not, but only if enough evidence exists for the criminal case to go to trial.
The district attorney’s office joined the defense in arguing that confidentiality had to be broken in order for Philips to testify. Assistant District Attorney Ana Marie Lopez said the city won’t even provide basic information about when the closed sessions took place and how they were put on the agenda. day.
Podberesky argued that the district attorney’s office was trying to use Philips’ testimony to circumvent the city’s denials.
“Nor should it be a fishing expedition for people to get information behind closed doors that they wouldn’t otherwise have the right to know,” Podberesky said during the hearing.
The judge has not yet set a time for Philips’ testimony. The parties will then appear on Monday, August 15 to discuss whether Industry intends to appeal Pastor’s decision to allow Philips to testify privately. If the industry challenges the decision, the preliminary investigation, which began in February, could be delayed even longer pending a stay.