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SAN JOSE � Midway through litigation on a federal lawsuit, San Benito County supervisors abruptly fired their outside counsel, Fish & Richardson, saying the prominent Redwood City firm � at $360 an hour � was just too expensive. However, San Benito District Attorney John Sarsfield, who was not onboard with the move, said he suspects the firm was let go because at least one supervisor had a personal ax to grind. “The cost justification isn’t that compelling,” Sarsfield said last week. “The real story behind this is that there is animosity between two members of the board and Fish & Richardson.” In January, Fish & Richardson successfully defended the county against a $5 million racial harassment suit brought forward by Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz. De La Cruz didn’t respond to a request for comment, but fellow Supervisor Anthony Botelho insists revenge was the last thing on the board’s mind when it chose to let Fish & Richardson go earlier this month. “I don’t think that’s a very fair assumption,” Botelho said. “We are trying to rein in all our outside litigation costs.” Before the firm was fired, Fish & Richardson was preparing to defend the county in a federal invasion of privacy case that accuses Sarsfield and Sheriff Curtis Hill of disclosing the name of a sexual assault victim during a 2003 news conference. San Jose’s Rankin, Landsness, Lahde, Serverian & Stock, the county’s insurance firm, has been tapped to take over the case, Stafford-Pelt v. San Benito County, at a rate of $160 an hour. The Stafford-Pelt case, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, should have gone to the Rankin firm to begin with, Botelho said, adding that the case is “pretty straightforward” and Rankin, Landsness shouldn’t have that much trouble getting up to speed. Sarsfield said he believes the supervisors originally chose Fish & Richardson as lead defense because they wanted to “send the message” to the community that they will “vigorously defend” any and all suits that come their way. San Benito has had “more than its fair share of lawsuits,” added Botelho, saying that defending the county is draining money for other departments and services. Botelho said the county’s decision to let go of the firm is not a reflection on its performance. “They’ve done a good job,” he said, adding that the firm is just too expensive. Botelho said he didn’t know how much money San Benito has spent on outside litigation over the past year and referred the question to County Counsel Claude Biddle, who was out of town and unavailable for comment. While Sarsfield said it was imprudent for the county to change direction midstream and fire the firm, some legal consultants said it’s not really that uncommon. “Typically, counties will use small law firms” that specialize in a field instead of a large firm, said San Diego-based legal consultant Larry Watanabe. Peter Zeughauser, another well-known Southern California consultant, agreed. “I think that government agencies are very price sensitive,” he said. “I don’t think many people who hire Fish & Richardson [worry about the cost of litigation].” John Picone, a principal at Fish & Richardson who was leading the county’s defense team, said he wasn’t really surprised when supervisors terminated his contract. “There was always some tension about the rate,” said Picone, who is a county resident and keenly aware of San Benito’s financial constraints. “I don’t think the county was using us exclusively.” While the firm has worked with the county on other legal matters, including some pro bono work, San Benito “wasn’t a longtime Fish & Richardson client,” Picone said, adding that he didn’t feel like things ended “vindictively.” Picone said Stafford-Pelt was a challenging case filled with complexities that could slow things down for the new defense team. In the long run, Sarsfield said he wonders if the cost saving in switching law firms will really be as much as the county is anticipating. While Rankin costs much less than Fish & Richardson, its lawyers will no doubt have to spend countless hours getting up to speed, which could end up costing San Benito more money, he said.

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