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San Diego Ethics Commission says mayor can receive free legal aid

Mayor Dick Murphy can receive volunteer legal services in post-election challenges, according to a recent letter from the San Diego Ethics Commission.

Mayor Murphy sent a letter to the ethics commission on Jan. 26, inquiring about the possibility of receiving legal services on a voluntary basis under city and state law.

Murphy received an offer from local attorney Robert Steiner, a retired partner in the firm Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps.

Stacey Fullhorst, executive director of the San Diego Ethics Commission, wrote in the letter that legal services can be accepted.

"The contemplated legal services would not be considered a gift to a city official, and would therefore not be subject to the $360 annual gift limit," according to Fullhorst.

There are, however, a couple of stipulations to accepting the services, including that the staff for the volunteer attorney may "not spend more than 10 percent of the compensated time in one month doing so."

The letter comes as a breath of fresh air for Murphy and his attorney, Bob Ottilie, who have vocalized concerns over the unfairness of the rules governing the electoral challenges currently being litigated.

Murphy is required to raise money through individual "legal defense fund" accounts with the maximum of $250 per contribution. A fund can be set up for each lawsuit.

If the legal costs are more than the amount raised, Murphy is personally responsible.

"I still have to deal with the large financial burden of paying my primary attorney to defend against these lawsuits, but having a volunteer attorney, especially Bob Steiner, is helpful," Murphy said Wednesday.

Ottilie is currently fighting for Murphy's victory in the Nov. 2 election against two lawyers that filed suits challenging the outcome on behalf of supporters of write-in candidate and Councilwoman Donna Frye.

More than 5,550 ballots were contested because the bubbles next to Frye's name were not filled in. These votes are known as "unbubbled" or "undervotes."

As a result, Murphy won the election by 2,108 votes.

The San Diego County Registrar did not count the votes, in compliance with state election codes.

Fred Woocher, a Santa Monica-based attorney, and local attorney Bruce Henderson filed two separate suits claiming that the unbubbled votes should be counted.

Because the attorneys are not representing city officials, they are not required to disclose their sources of payment.

Henderson and Woocher have both said in interviews that they have not received any money yet. Woocher, however, said he had received offers.

The mayor has five accounts set up and disclosure forms will not be released until April, according the to the San Diego City Clerk's office.

Recently, the mayor's Chief of Staff John Kern resigned to restart the Kern Co. and is handling fund-raising duties for the mayor.

Research:

Find more information about Mayor Dick Murphy, Councilwoman Donna Frye

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