by Vicki Jacobs
Each year, the Staff and Advisory Committee of the Voluntary Legal Services Program (VLSP) are pleased to award our annual June Black Pro Bono Award to one of our wonderful volunteers. At the SCBA’s December Annual Meeting, we presented Irene Tamura the 2016 award (named in memory of June Black, VLSP’s founding Program Coordinator who spent 17 years working to assure that Sacramento area low-income clients received free legal services from volunteer attorneys).
Having dedicated her career to public service, Irene has continued her service in retirement through volunteerism. She helps with lunches at Loaves and Fishes on a monthly basis and provides phone and in-person advice to VLSP clients approximately twice a week, both at our evening Debt Collection Defense Clinic and during regular business hours. According to Heather Tiffee, VLSP’s Assistant Program Manager and Staff Attorney, Irene “has jumped at the opportunity to learn new areas of law, including employment law and housing. She has provided invaluable support not only to clients but to our staff as well, including research projects and outreach to various other nonprofits to help bring VLSP’s services out into our community. Always positive and encouraging, Irene brings genuine concern and care to each client’s individual legal dilemma. She has become an indispensable member of our team and a wonderful addition to our office.”
In 2016 alone, Irene assisted over 20 clients in person and gave phone advice to at least 50 more. Since she began volunteering at VLSP about six years ago, Irene has met with and helped over 70 clients with their debt-related problems. Irene only retired in 2015, so she made substantial pro bono contributions while balancing a demanding career and family, plus other volunteering.
Irene is a member of the Asian/Pacific Bar Association of Sacramento and previously served as President of the Board of Directors of Asian Resources, Inc. Asian Resources happens to be one of VLSP’s partners in providing indigent clients with expungement help and guidance in driver’s license reinstatement. Irene has also served as a Board member of the Florin Japanese Citizens League and assisted with the activities of her two children, including the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and church activities with the United Methodist Church.
Irene is a 1983 graduate of Hastings College of the Law. After graduation, she served for 11 years as the law clerk to two chief bankruptcy judges, David Russell and Loren Dahl.
Irene’s legal career demonstrates her commitment to public service. From 1994 to 2000, she served in the Government Law Section of the Attorney General’s office, where she represented the interests of the state’s elected officials in litigation in state and federal court. She worked on cases challenging ballot initiatives such as the additional tobacco tax to fund early childhood education. She also worked to defend the State Controller’s unclaimed property law and defended the California Public Employees Retirement System calculation of industrial disability benefits.
In 2000, Irene was appointed by Governor Gray Davis to serve as Chief Counsel to Grantland Johnson, the Secretary of the Health and Human Services Agency. She served in this position for three years. She advised the Secretary and his staff on legal matters involving several state departments, including the Department of Health Services, Mental Health, Developmental Services, Social Services, Aging, and Employment Development. She provided legal advice on strategies from directors and managers to deal with the budget crisis during that time.
In 2003, Irene returned to the Attorney General’s Office. Until her retirement in 2015, she served in the Energy and Corporate Fraud Sections of the Attorney General’s Office. While in the Energy Section, as part of a team of attorneys, she represented the state’s interests in the AG’s civil enforcement action in state court against Enron for manipulation of the electricity wholesale market during the early 2000’s energy crisis. In the Enron bankruptcy case, she worked on preserving the state’s claim for Enron’s actions in defrauding the utilities and the state’s consumers curing the crisis. She also litigated the right of the Attorney General to continue his lawsuit against Enron in state court as an enforcement action exempt from the bankruptcy automatic stay. She served on the team that negotiated a settlement of the Enron bankruptcy case which returned refunds to the state’s utilities.
While in the Corporate Fraud Section, Irene worked on civil enforcement actions brought by the AG in the name of the People against securities broker-dealers and mutual fund companies for their failure to disclose shelf space agreements to investors.
After such a demanding career, the VLSP staff is very grateful that Irene has chosen to spend a significant amount of her precious retirement time with our organization. Not only does Irene help a great number of our clients, but she has helped train our newest employee, Legal Assistant Alejandro Mejia. Whatever is needed, she willingly does.
Irene is enjoying her work at legal aid. She says, “I am grateful to Vicki Jacobs and Heather Tiffee of VLSP for permitting me to volunteer in their pro bono work for the poor. There is such an overwhelming need for attorneys to do pro bono work. The VLSP clients are always so thankful that an attorney has taken time to listen and help them. I have derived more satisfaction from this volunteer service than from my employment as an attorney.”
We are grateful too, Irene, and congratulations on your well-deserved award.