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Indybay Feature

Autry’s Day in Court

by Mike Rhodes (mikerhodes [at] comcast.net)
A report of what happened in court today.
Autry’s Day in Court
By Mike Rhodes

Fresno mayor Alan Autry, responding to a request from Judge Oliver Wanger to explain a statement attacking the court and homeless peoples legal counsel, said “I felt as if the homeless and the people of Fresno had a gun to their head.” Autry was talking about the pressure he felt to settle a lawsuit, brought to Federal Court, to stop the City of Fresno from taking and immediately destroying homeless peoples property.

To read mayor Autry’s entire statement, go to:
http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/06/06/18504842.php

You can read judge Wanger’s order, delivered to the mayor by Federal Marshals, here:
http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/06/09/18505522.php

The portion of Autry’s statement Judge Wanger was primarily concerned about was:
“The City of Fresno will comply with the court order and look forward to continuing our 10 year plan to end chronic homelessness. However, this white collar exploitation of the homeless by the Court and the lawyers is unconscionable. I am calling upon the ACLU and Judge Wanger to require half of the exorbitant lawyer fees of $750,000 to be donated to homeless programs.”

Judge Wanger was particularly concerned with the mayor’s choice of words “white collar exploitation.” In fact, in a response to Autry’s statement, Wanger wrote: “Exploitation” means “unethical utilization for selfish purposes.” The word “exploit” means “to use selfishly for one’s
own ends.” The term exploitation is defined as “use or utilization esp. for profit; selfish utilization.” Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary 2d ed. (1999) p. 682. “Exploit” means “to make unethical use of for one’s own advantage or profit; turn selfishly or unfairly to one’s own account; hence.” Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (College Ed. 1957). The publically issued statements of Defendant Alan Autry, the Mayor and Chief Executive Officer of the City of Fresno, call into question the good faith of the City Defendants
in entering into a settlement. (End of statement by Wanger)

At the start of court this morning, Judge Wanger recognized that he had received an electronic communication from Caltrans (they are also defendants in this case). Legal counsel for Caltrans argued that no one from Caltrans had made any derogatory statement about the settlement and that their clients would like, no matter what happens with the City of Fresno, the settlement to go forward for Caltrans. Caltrans has agreed to contribute $85,000 in the settlement.

Judge Wanger said that the “court did not negotiate the settlement.” He continued, “it is the parties and not the court who agree to the settlement.” Wanger reminded the court that the lawsuit is still before the court and that a jury trial could begin as early as next week. He said that it was his understanding that one of the defendants (Alan Autry) had objected to the settlement.

Speaking about Autry’s public statement, following the settlement, Wanger said “you can’t accuse the court of committing criminal conduct.” Wanger said that everyone has a right to criticize him, “but it is beyond the understanding of this court” what Autry’s intent was when he issued his statement. Wanger read the statement, with special emphasis on the section that read “white collar exploitation of the homeless by the Court and the lawyers is unconscionable.” Wanger said “there is no basis to a settlement if the parties don’t agree.”

Paul Alexander, legal counsel for the plaintiffs, was asked for his input on the status of the settlement. Alexander said that it is his “position that the plaintiffs have entered into a binding settlement.” He said the City of Fresno, Caltrans, and the named plaintiffs in the case have come to an agreement and it must be honored.

Wanger asked if Alexander thought that the settlement was an enforceable contract. Alexander said he thought so and that the plaintiffs legal team supports the settlement. Wanger replied “and what assurance do you have that the city will fulfill the agreement?” Alexander said the city will transfer the money to an administrator who will distribute the money and that the court will hold the city accountable. “If there is any problem, we will be back,” Alexander said.

City of Fresno legal counsel James Betts was asked for his position on the settlement. He agreed with the plaintiffs that the settlement should move forward and then disagreed with Judge Wanger’s narrative, regarding Autry’s statement. He disagreed that “any statement made suggests we don’t want this settlement. The city wants this settlement to stand.”

Wanger asked Betts if there was any basis in the law for his client’s (Alan Autry) statement that the court was engaged in “white collar exploitation of the homeless.” Betts replied “the mayor has the right to make a political comment” and that the line of questioning was a violation of the separation between the judicial and legislative bodies of government. Betts informed Judge Wanger that he will instruct his client (Autry) not to answer the question.

Judge Wanger told Betts that Autry is a defendant in this case and asked him to respond. Autry said “I would like to respond.” Wanger asked him “what is your basis of the statement about white collar exploitation.” Betts interrupted and said that his client is speaking against the advise of counsel. “I thought I was in America and not the Soviet Union,” Autry said. Wanger reminded Autry that there are political and practical consequences to your words and actions.

Autry - “Am I being held to your definition of exploitation?”
Wanger - “My request to you is that you explain yourself. Yes, there could be consequences.”

After a brief huddle between the mayor, Betts, and City Attorney Sanchez, Betts returned and said that he objects to the line of inquiry. He said this was an issue of the separation between the legislative body and the court. He instructed his client (Autry) not to answer.

Judge Wanger said that Autry’s earlier comment, after a preliminary injunction was issued to stop the City of Fresno from taking and immediately destroying homeless peoples property was different. In late 2006, Autry said that it “would behoove Judge Wanger and benefit this community greatly, if he wishes to continue to express his personal opinion rather than judge, to venture out of his robe and chamber occasionally, enter the real world and find out the real truth.” Wanger said Autry’s statement last week was of another nature.

Autry, not taking his legal counsel’s advise, began to speak. “We hope we could live in the world we want, but we are in the real world. I love America.” Autry said that he felt many court decisions are unfair. With this “so called settlement, I felt as if the homeless and all the people of Fresno had a gun to their head.” Looking at the plaintiffs legal counsel, Autry said he felt the city was up against overwhelming power - “we are up against a group that will stop at nothing to win. These lawyer fees are outrageous.” He concluded with “I believe the homeless were being taken advantage of here.”

Judge Wanger then asked Autry and each of the defendants in the case if they agreed with the settlement. They were all called upon, one at a time, to stand and say whether or not they agreed with the settlement. They all did. With that, Wanger said that the settlement is intact and the agreement will proceed. The next court date scheduled for July 25 at 3 PM. The purpose of that court date will be to issue a final approval to the settlement.

Before the July 25 court appearance, homeless people who had their property taken and destroyed will be contacted. There are already over 200 members of this class action lawsuit, but more could emerge as news of the settlement spreads through the community.

Two homeless people who are a part of the lawsuit have been assaulted following the announced settlement last Friday. Jean Nelson was attacked from behind on Saturday, the person demanding money she apparently believed Jean had already received. Yesterday, Charles was held up at gun point and told by his assailant to give him the money he had received from the settlement. There is concern in the homeless community that these attacks could escalate as funds from the landmark $2.3 million settlement start to be distributed. Distribution of funds is not expected to happen until August.
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