Cindy Ossias, the Department of Insurance attorney
who leaked documents to the legislature that contributed to the resignation of Insurance
Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, will not be disciplined for ethical violations by the
State Bar. The bar found that Ossias disclosure of confidential client information,
because it involved public protection, was protected by Californias whistleblower
In a six-paragraph letter to her attorney, bar deputy trial counsel
Donald Steedman exonerated Ossias because, he said, her conduct was consistent with
the spirit of the Whistleblower Protection Act; (and) it advanced important public policy
considerations bearing on the responsibilities of the office of insurance commissioner.
In closing the bars investiga-tion, Steedman wrote, We
have concluded that Ms. Ossias did not engage in conduct which warrants disciplinary
He had reviewed whether Ossias violated client confidences, whether
she complied with the obligations of attorneys who represent organiza-tions and whether
her conduct was permissible under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Ossias provided information to the Assembly Insurance Committee about
secret settlements Quackenbush reached with six insurance companies after the 1994
Northridge earthquake. Under the settlements, the companies were allowed to donate $12.45
million to private foundations that Quackenbush created and avoid possible fines for
mishandling the claims.
Ossias had testified that the companies should have been fined
between $20 and $60 million.
Before he left office, Quackenbush placed Ossias on administrative
leave and took steps to fire her. J. Clark Kelso, a McGeorge Law School professor who
served as interim commissioner after Quackenbush resigned, reinstated Ossias after a
seven-week suspension, saying her actions were protected by the whistleblower law. He also
commended her for her her extraordinarily difficult, courageous decision to make a
disclosure of information when she thought she might suffer adverse consequences.
Steedman said he took Kelsos actions into account in reaching
the decision to not discipline Ossias.
In addition, the bars relatively new prosecutorial guidelines,
under which ethical offenses are prioritized and the focus is placed on the most serious,
played into Steedmans decision. Ossias actions were considered relatively
minor under the guidelines, prosecutors said.
The states whistleblower statute protects ordinary people from
getting fired for revealing wrongdoing at work, but it does not clearly cover lawyers.
And under ethics rules, an attorney can almost never disclose a
clients wrongdoing. Ossias situation was further governed by a Rule of
Professional Conduct which requires attorneys who represent a company or other
organization to report complaints to the organizations highest authority.
Although some legal experts interpreted the bars decision as an
opening for public lawyers to divulge confidential information, bar lawyers backed away
from such a suggestion.
There is no formal opinion of the State Bar that
whistleblower protections apply to attorneys, said deputy executive
director Robert Hawley. Instead, he said, the decision amounts to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.
The application of whistleblower protections to
attorneys is a complex area currently under review by both the State Bar and the
legislature, Hawley said, adding that he hoped more definitive guidance for
attorneys will be offered soon.