OAKLAND — Old photos show the two women smiling on a ferryboat off the shores of Spain, unwrapping presents by a Christmas tree and posing for the camera at a child's backyard birthday party.
Those memories are all that remain of the close friendship once shared by Deborah Cooksey and Meredith Brown. The two lawyers are facing off in what's shaping up to be an ugly, high-stakes legal battle involving public funds, racketeering allegations and their very professional reputations.
Last fall, as general counsel for the Oakland Unified School District, Cooksey led an investigation into the small Oakland firm Brown runs with her husband, Guy Bryant. Cooksey concluded that the Bryant & Brown, which had performed legal services for the school district's facilities department since 2001, had defrauded the school system with duplicate and falsified bills — and that the firm had carelessly litigated a major case, costing the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last month, the district took its suspicions to court, filing a federal lawsuit against the lawyers and up to 50 unnamed defendants who, according to the suit, may have conspired with Bryant and Brown to steal money from the district. The complaint accuses the husband-and-wife firm of racketeering, fraud, legal malpractice and the theft of public funds.
"The district seeks to recover public funds in excess of over $1 million from Bryant & Brown and its malpractice insurance company," district spokesman Troy Flint said. Flint declined to elaborate further on the nature of the allegations, the basis for the racketeering charges, or who any of the alleged co-conspirators might be.
Brown and Bryant responded last week by filing a defamation suit against Cooksey, the school district and the district's interim superintendent. They contend that Cooksey's investigation and the lawsuit that followed were malicious and baseless, reeking of a personal vendetta.
"This is way, way, overblown," said Zack Wasserman, the lawyer representing Bryant & Brown, who said the problem amounts to "a billing dispute."
He added, "Their objective is to destroy this firm and these two people."
School district officials would not discuss any of the 10 allegations against the firm. Wasserman says some of the allegations appear to be "made out of whole cloth."
By its own estimate, the firm has overbilled the district about $38,000 — a sum which it repaid before the district filed suit, according to Wasserman.
Bryant and Brown say a software glitch in their billing system is responsible for all of the duplicate invoices; they say it was an honest mistake that could have been resolved without going to court. Vintage Foster, a public relations manager whom Bryant & Brown hired for this case, said the firm has hired accountants to determine whether other clients were affected by billing errors. So far no problems have been detected, he said.
"The truth is, we didn't want to fight with the school district," Brown said in an interview last week. "We've done a damned good job," she added. "That's why it hurts so much."
Bryant and Brown are prominent members of the Oakland community. Brown was a Hillary Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention in August, and the couple coach children's soccer and Lacrosse. The couple says the high-profile investigation has affected their personal lives as well as their business, and that they've done a lot of explaining to acquaintances and clients since the probe went public. They also lost their largest client, the Oakland school district.
"The worst thing you can say about a lawyer is that you overbill and that you cheat," Bryant said. While the bad economy might also be to blame, he said, "Our phone is not nearly as busy as it was before this."
Cooksey, who left the district last week, did not respond to requests for an interview — or to questions about her personal history with the two lawyers she investigated.
Interim schools superintendent Roberta Mayor would not say if or when she became aware of the personal connection between Brown and Cooksey, or whether that broken friendship might have had a bearing on Cooksey's investigation. It is not clear why Cooksey resigned, or whether she has another job.
A friendship soured
Brown said she and her husband met Cooksey soon after they moved to Oakland, in the late 1980s, and that the two families soon became close. Brown said Cooksey's family stayed at her home for a short time during the Oakland hills fire of 1991. Brown said she baby-sat Cooksey's daughter, and that she once promoted a novel Cooksey had written by setting up a reading at a local bookstore.
After Bryant and Brown had children of their own and went into private practice together, they said, the two couples saw each other less and less.
"There was no big breakup," Bryant said. "We had just drifted apart."
Bryant and Brown say they believe Cooksey turned on them because of a legal opinion Brown wrote in 2004. Their defamation suit asserts that Brown's opinion indirectly cost Cooksey her job, causing Cooksey to retaliate once she returned to the district as interim general counsel, three years later.
Brown's 2004 opinion essentially stopped the financially-strapped district from transferring millions of dollars in bond interest from the facilities pot to the general purpose fund, a move suggested as a way to offset the fiscal crisis which had thrown Oakland Unified into state receivership the year before. Brown concluded that the money couldn't be used in that way.
As a result of ensuing budget reductions, Bryant & Brown's attorneys argue, the school district's legal department was forced to cut staff attorney positions, including Cooksey's.
Roy Combs, who was the district's general counsel — and Cooksey's boss — at the time, remembers it differently. Combs said the legal department underwent at least two waves of budget cuts as a result of the fiscal crisis, but that he decided to trim clerical positions and roll back salaries rather than eliminate staff attorneys. Board minutes show Cooksey resigned in August 2004 to take a position in private practice.
"I certainly don't recall that opinion — or, frankly, anything happening in the facilities program — having any bearing on Deborah Cooksey's resignation from the district," Combs said.
After Cooksey left, Combs said, he filled her position.