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Attorney calls county’s lawsuit a ‘sham’

County says complex case has merit
By: Jenifer Gee Journal Staff Writer
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A former planning commissioner is alleging the county’s lawsuit against her is a politically motivated sham. Brigit Barnes, an attorney for former Placer County planning commissioner Michelle Ollar-Burris, recently filed a lawsuit in federal court saying Placer County officials misrepresented information to the court and deprived Ollar-Burris of her constitutional rights. Barnes said Friday that the lawsuit was filed to protect her client’s rights before a statue of limitations ran out on filing such a complaint. She said it has not yet been served to the county. Barnes explained that a judge is expected to rule this week on several motions regarding the lawsuit the county filed against Ollar-Burris in November 2007. Barnes said after the judge makes those rulings, she expects to amend her federal complaint against the county and then serve it to them. Barnes declined to comment further until after the judge’s expected decision this week. About two years ago, the county filed a civil lawsuit against Ollar-Burris and two others – Grass Valley consultant George Wasley and Sacramento developer and attorney Thomas Van Horne - charging that they conspired to subdivide several lots without going through a final subdivision map process. In its discovery, the county estimates the cost that the land developers in the suit avoided by not following property rules is about $4 million, according to a statement made by Anthony La Bouff, Placer County counsel, in a prior Journal report. However, Barnes wrote in her federal complaint that the county “engaged in politically motivated ‘sham’ litigation based on false accusations with no legal or factual basis.” La Bouff said this week that while he could not comment on the specific complaint because it has not yet been served to the county, he said the charge that they filed a baseless lawsuit is not new. “Since the beginning of the litigation and her prior attempts to bring lawsuits in state court, (Ollar-Burris) has asserted the only motivation for the county’s actions are political,” La Bouff said. “Clearly the county thinks it did what it did for the right reasons – not political reasons.” La Bouff said the case is still in the “discovery phase” and is a long way from making it to a jury trial. “It is a complex case,” La Bouff said. “That’s why we’re putting significant effort into it.” In 2005, an anonymous letter making complaints about Ollar-Burris’s real estate activities was forwarded to the Placer County District Attorney’s Office, which declined to prosecute the case. La Bouff said that the county decided to go forward with a civil lawsuit because the county believes they have merit to their claims. La Bouff added that a civil case has a lower standard of proof. A jury doesn’t have to reach a unanimous verdict and the county doesn’t have to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. “We think there is merit in the underlying case and the allegation that we filed something for the wrong purpose or for a sham is not accurate,” La Bouff said. “We always thought it was on a factual and legal basis. I wouldn’t have filed it if I didn’t think so.” Cost of litigation unknown La Bouff said he doesn’t know how much money the county has spent investigating the case involving Ollar-Burris. He did say staff has put in “significant time” on the case. “I don’t know how much money that equates to,” La Bouff said. Around the time the lawsuit was first filed, outside counsel Richard Crabtree was hired to assist the county counsel’s staff. La Bouff said he as “no idea” how many hours Crabtree has spent on the case. La Bouff said Crabtree was paid $50,000 for the initial investigation in 2007 but could not provide an updated figure. “He’s been involved,” La Bouff said. Jenifer Gee can be reached at jeniferg@goldcountrymedia.com.