Julia Fellmeth: Consumer attorney is bane of many boards

Julianne D’Angelo Fellmeth might be the Zelig of state professional boards. Along with her husband, Robert Fellmeth, and the organization he founded 28 years ago, the Center for Public Interest Law (CPIL), she is on a quest to change the way professional boards are governed in California: more transparency, more public input, and stronger disciplinary enforcement against professionals who break their code of conduct.

To their critics, the Fellmeths and CPIL are opportunists with little understanding of the professions they’re meddling with—and who sometimes end up harming the public they claim to protect. Others question CPIL’s importance, dismiss them as media hounds, or say the group is mainly pursuing lucrative contracts to monitor the very type of aggressive enforcement they’re pushing. The Fellmeth’s critics among professional organizations are many. Their critics who will speak on the record are far fewer in number—something that some attribute to the sway the CPIL holds over several legislators and boards. 

Representatives of CPIL can be found at nearly every professional board meeting held in the state. Each year, about two dozen law students sign up for a year-long class in the University of San Diego Schools of Law, which houses the CPIL. Each one serves as a kind of intern for the group, attending the meetings of two different boards for the entire school year. Julia Fellmeth herself claims to have attended every California Medical Board meeting for the last 22 years, an experience she doesn’t recommend.

Fellmeth said her mission is simple: to put power in the hands of the public. For too long, she said, state boards have sought mainly to protect the professionals they are supposed to be monitoring instead of the public. While professionals pay for this oversight in the form of annual fees, these costs are ultimately passed on to consumers.

“If I’m going to be paying for the cost of these licensing boards, I want them to do what they’re supposed to do,” Fellmeth said.
David Swartz, a certified public accountant (CPA) and current member of the California Board of Accountancy, takes a somewhat different view.

“People like Julie think they know more about our profession than we do,” Swartz said. “It’s like, if we want it, she doesn’t. She thinks these boards are manned by people in the professions who are only going to do things looking out for members of the profession. We want to do what’s best. We want the profession to be elevated.”

This ignorance of the accounting profession and the rules that apply in other states is actually putting the public at risk, Swartz argued. He also said that many others feel the same way, but are afraid to speak out. A past president of the board, Swartz’s term ran out on June 1. He said that his well-known disagreements with Fellmeth may keep him from being reappointed.

One thing both Fellmeth and Swartz agree on is that these boards increasingly are not just manned by people in the profession anymore. Fellmeth said that if you go back a few years, most California professional boards had strong majorities of professional members. These days, she said, all boards outside of the health care field have majorities of “public members,” people who are not members of the professions they monitor and who are there mainly to look out for consumers. Fellmeth said this is largely due to years of lobbying by her organization, a claim that some people associated with professional boards dismiss.

The health care boards that still have professional majorities are also some of the boards that CPIL has tangled with the most in recent years—something that no one seems to think is a coincidence. This group includes the Medical Board, as well as the boards governing chiropractors, dentists, optometrists, ophthalmologists and osteopaths.

Tim Hart, a lobbyist for the California Optometric Association, said that he’s had plenty of run-ins with Fellmeth and the CPIL over the years. But as opposed to some other self-styled consumer watchdog groups that seem to be “against everything,” he said, disagreements are with the CPIL “are always over policy,” and the group is always very clear about what they stand for.

“It’s very easy to invoke ‘the fox guarding the henhouse,’” Hart said. “They don’t do that.”

But that doesn’t mean he usually agrees with them. He said the CPIL advocates that nearly every complaint against a professional be available for the public to see. The problem with this idea, he said, is that many complaints come from consumers upset that “their glasses cost too much.” Few of these complaints rise to the level of actual misconduct—and actual members of the profession are much better at determining when someone has actually done something wrong.

Cathy Mudge, chief spokeswoman for the California Dental Association, had a similar take. She said Fellmeth and others with the CPIL have an excellent knowledge of parliamentary procedure and have made many positive changes to state boards. But she also agrees that their idea of a “meaningful threshold” of what level of misconduct should be made available via public databases may sometimes go a bit overboard.

Another plank of the CPIL’s program is “vertical enforcement.” Currently, professional misconduct cases are usually sent to an investigator employed directly by the board. The investigator compiles the information on a case, and then turns it over to a deputy attorney general (DAG), who may then bring a case against the professional in question. Fellmeth wants to move several classes of specialized investigators into the Attorney General’s office and have them work directly with the DAG while they build a case. This would result in investigator’s gathering more useful information and prevent them from spending a lot of time on cases that probably won’t go anywhere, Fellmeth said. But many boards also see this idea as a threat to their autonomy, she said.

A bill passed this week by the legislature, SB 797 by Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, directs the Medical Board towards a vertical enforcement model. Ridley-Thomas sees the Medical Board as a kind of test case for moving other boards towards this model of enforcing rules on licensees.

“Precedent has to be set and tested in order for others to follow suit,” Ridley-Thomas said. When asked how closely he worked with the Fellmeths and the CPIL in putting SB 797 together, he added: “There is an ongoing conversation with them on a range of subjects.”

The Fellmeths are part of a small network of consumer attorneys in California. In 1995, Robert Fellmeth co-authored a book still used in law school courses, “White Collar Crime,” with another attorney active with the CPIL, Thomas Papageorge. Named 2004 Antitrust Lawyer of the Year by the California State Bar, Papageorge has headed the Consumer Protection Division of the LA DA’s office since 1984.

Another associate of the Fellmeths, Jim Conran, has been serving as a public member of the Board of Chiropractic Examiners since February of last year. Conran, who is also president of the group Consumers First, has clashed publicly with professionals members of that board, which was in the news last year due to disputes with staff and other problems.

Julia Fellmeth is also a registered lobbyist. The group’s most recent lobbying report shows them active on 11 different bills concerning professions in California. She said that technically she might not have to register as a lobbyist, since she t
hinks she spends less than a third of her working time lobbying legislators or boards.

“I’m registered as lobbyist out of an abundance of caution,” she said.

The CPIL’s most controversial activity may be one that Fellmeth said they actually do very little of—enforcement monitoring contracts. She was employed as the enforcement monitor of the Medical Board from November 2003 to November 2005; a $237,466 fee was paid to CPIL for these services. This followed a well-publicized scandal around the boards monitoring of doctors with substance abuse problems.

Candice Cohen, chief spokesperson for the Medical Board, said they are frequently stuck in the middle in disagreements between the CPIL and the powerful California Medical Association—but lean a little more towards the CPIL’s model of increasing disclosure.
“We thought her criticism was quite constructive,” Cohen said of Julia Fellmeth’s work as enforcement monitor.

Bob Fellmeth served as the State Bar discipline monitor from 1987 to 1992. Julia Fellmeth said the CPIL has no current enforcement monitoring contracts.

One thing is for certain. After 28 years, no one thinks the CPIL is going away anytime soon. Professional groups around the state say they plan on working with—and sometimes against—the CPIL to try to get the group to see which changes will actually help consumers.

“I certainly think their intentions are well-meaning,” the Dental Association’s Mudge said. “The devil is always in the details.”

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