It continues to be a part of CRLA's legacy that the advocacy considered most controversial will invite political interference from powerful interests against whom CRLA litigates. In the early 1970's, CRLA cases led to the state governor's veto of its Federal funds in an effort to eliminate us. In the 1980's, these attacks were renewed in the form of a presidential effort to eliminate legal services entirely, then to significantly defund it; at the same time, hostile Federal investigations and regulatory restrictions were used in a national effort to deter legal service programs including CRLA from "high impact" advocacy work. In the 1990's significant decreases in funding and more extensive restrictions continued to hamper the provision of legal services throughout the country.
Since late 2000, the investigatory arm of the Federal government has increased its focus directly on CRLA's work, at the behest of three rural, Central Valley Congressmen who have wielded their political influence over Federal agencies on behalf of the state's dairy industry. This industry has been the target of successful labor litigation brought by CRLA that has recovered nearly $2 million in worker benefits. Over that time, there have been three Federal reviews by Legal Services Corporation (LSC) entities that have kept CRLA under a shadow of Federal investigation or audit for almost 80% of that time! The second investigation initiated by Democrat Congressman Cal Dooley lasted 40 months from the time CRLA was notified of the investigation to its closure. As part of that process, CRLA's Executive Director testified in March 2004, before the Congressional Subcommittee that funds national legal services delivery.
The third investigation by the LSC Office of Inspector General (OIG) began December 2005, and has yet to be closed. Part of that on-going investigation initiated by Congressman Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) is now pending in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in the case United States of America et al vs. California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., et al. CRLA invited the OIG to subpoena the client data it sought after the OIG unsuccessfully sought to pressure LSC to suspend CRLA funding over this issue. CRLA receives nearly $7 million from LSC. In the litigation CRLA is represented pro bono by the law firms of Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin and Kirkland & Ellis LLP. The Morrison & Foerster firm also represents CRLA attorneys.
In March 2006, the dispute began when the OIG sought production of confidential personal information concerning some 39,000 clients for whom CRLA opened files during a 33-month period. CRLA objected that this information is protected as confidential under federal and state law. The American Bar Association issued a letter last year supporting CRLA's position.
CRLA has refused the demand because the risk of divulging client identities and data to the public will not only discourage future clients from seeking assistance, but will jeopardize the security of thousands of current or recent clients. CRLA 's rural poor clients seek legal help on highly sensitive and confidential issues such as domestic violence, landlord abuse, and failure of their employers to pay farm workers for hours of arduous work. These clients are fearful of physical abuse, or housing or employer retaliation if adversaries would come to know their identities from their having sought CRLA legal advice.
Throughout, the OIG has refused to articulate any rational need for the information or discuss any way to acquire it more efficiently. When asked the purpose of the massive inquiry, OIG refuses to provide any rationale other than saying they have the power to obtain the information and have no need to state any reason. Nor has OIG been willing to enter into any binding agreement that sensitive client information sent to it will remain confidential and not be passed on to others. The OIG has also stated that more information is needed to find out if CRLA "disproportionately focuses its resources on farm worker and Latino work, "matters which are neither regulated nor prohibited.
The on-going investigation, now in its third year, also resulted in LSC placing CRLA on month-to-month funding throughout 2007, requiring that CRLA comply with five Special Grant Conditions that added new record-keeping and reporting burdens on virtually all staff throughout the state. At the same time, CRLA went through two additional Federal audits that found CRLA in compliance with the various regulations that govern its legal services. In 2008, the funding status has changed to a 6-month funding cycle and CRLA remains burdened with the special reporting requirements in effect in 2007.