A Sonora man and his attorney who sued the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority for public records last year are launching a nonprofit watchdog group aimed at empowering taxpayers and holding other government agencies accountable throughout California.

Corona-based attorney Chad Morgan said that he and Ken Perkins, of Apple Valley Estates, are teaming with former Costa Mesa City Councilman Jim Righeimer to open the Institute for Government Responsibility, which will operate out of Southern California and cover issues throughout the state.

“It will be kind of like a private attorney general to enforce laws that the government isn’t enforcing,” said Morgan.

The self-described “political nerd” turned legal activist said he submitted the articles of incorporation to register the institute as a nonprofit organization in May and anticipates being able to announce their first project within about two months.

Morgan represented Perkins last year in a lawsuit against the TCEDA over Perkins’ request through the California Public Records Act for documentation of the businesses that the agency had helped since it was created in 2008, which was denied by the Tuolumne County Counsel’s Office on the grounds that such information was confidential and would expose the trade secrets of private companies.

Perkins specifically challenged claims made by Larry Cope, the TCEDA’s chief executive officer, in a November 2017 report that stated the agency was at the time involved with projects that totaled nearly $400 million in capital investment and expected to create over 2,000 jobs at an average wage of more than $20 per hour.

Ultimately, the TCEDA was forced to publicly release redacted versions of spreadsheets created from memory by the agency’s chief executive officer, Larry Cope, who acknowledged that no other documentation existed.

The spreadsheets, and an accompanying list of business names, did not shed any light on the specific assistance that had been provided by the agency.

“What’s unique about that case was that the success was the absence of records,” Morgan said, calling it the “most ridiculous” exemption claim he’s ever seen. “They gave us something, but the real thing there is that they didn’t have any factual support for the claims they were making.”

The TCEDA — which was jointly funded by the county and City of Sonora — also had to pay for Perkins’ legal expenses that amounted to $7,023, in addition to paying more than $20,000 to the law firm Best, Best and Krieger for its defense.

Morgan said he hopes the institute will help others like Perkins, whom he was introduced to through another client shortly before filing the lawsuit against the TCEDA in early June.

“Ken is sort of like the proverbial guy who got fed up one day and accomplished something,” Morgan said.

Morgan grew up in Orange County and graduated from California State University, Fullerton, with a bachelor’s degree in business before getting involved with politics.

He previously ran political campaigns and served as chief of staff for former State Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, of Costa Mesa, before getting his law degree from Western State University College of Law in Fullerton and starting his practice in 2015.

“I saw the court system as a better way to solve things than the political process,” Morgan said. “The institute will be a research think tank to look into some of these issues, but also a public interest law firm.”

Morgan said he’s handled a number of dispute over public records between government agencies and private individuals, but the TCEDA stands out from the rest because of the impact it had.

The Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury released a scathing report on the TCEDA’s practices just weeks after the lawsuit was filed, which put additional pressure on the agency and those tasked with handling its legal advice.

Among the findings was that the TCEDA lacked the same formal processes for oversight as other taxpayer-funded entities and spent money in questionable ways, such as some elected county supervisors and other government officials being taken to lunch by Cope on the agency’s credit card.

A separate investigation by The Union Democrat of Cope’s travel and business-related expenses found that he spent more than $100,000 in two years on out-of-state trips for trade shows and conferences, almost daily meals at local restaurants, and other office items, such as a $1,000 drone to shoot aerial images for a promotional project that was never completed.

On Feb. 19, the agency was effectively shut down by a unanimous vote from the elected county Board of Supervisors and Sonora City Council.

County supervisors cited the time spent on a number of public records requests in the wake of Perkins’ lawsuit and the grand jury’s report as the primary reason for the decision to dismantle the agency, after publicly defending it throughout the ordeal.

Morgan said he sees himself looking into other economic development agencies in the future, though the upcoming action within 60 days is not related to the TCEDA.

“What we saw in Tuolumne County kind of perpetuates the stereotype of economic development agencies being kind of a slush fund for staff and elected (officials), honestly,” he said. “You’ve got members of the board getting a free lunch every week. It’s not something that’s the biggest line item on the expenses, but it’s not something that’s appropriate.”

Perkins, meanwhile, said he didn’t foresee himself becoming an activist for government accountability after his retirement. He previously served as the county’s environmental health director from 1985 to 1991 before doing similar work in the private sector for companies like Foster Farms, the Shaklee Corporation and laser-manufacturer Coherent Inc.

The issue with the TCEDA unfolded after Perkins attempted to provide input on a strategic plan for the Central Sierra Economic Development District, which Cope was also in charge of at the time, but was ignored.

One of the reasons Perkins said he wants to be involved in the new nonprofit institute is to help motivate others to take on public agencies when they see problems.

“Government continues to grow larger and larger, much more complex, and it’s becoming harder to determine whether they’re being transparent,” he said. “We’re not talking about getting rich here. We’re talking about taxpayer money and holding government agencies accountable for it.”

Perkins said that while he was able to “roll the dice” and put up his own money to go after the TCEDA, he knows others are prevented from doing the same because they don’t have the means.

The institute, Perkins hopes, will encourage others to take a stand. He said members of the Sonora City Council have reached out to him for advice on future efforts at economic development.

“That’s even more satisfying than the success of suing the TCEDA,” Perkins said. “Now, I’[m part of the community voice, and it’s a good feeling.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.