Jail lawsuit costs taxpayers $22,000

Not only will Augusta taxpayers have to pay for the jail expansion, they also have a related $22,620 legal bill on their tab, according to the bills The Augusta Chronicle obtained this week.

That expense comes because city commissioners hired Atlanta attorney Mary Cooney to represent the city after McKnight Construction sued over the contract to build the Webster Detention Center expansion.

McKnight went to court in July after learning that the city's procurement department had thrown out its bid for the project this summer, although it was the lowest bidder by nearly $2 million.

Based on legal advice given in a closed session, city commissioners voted this fall to rebid the project. McKnight came in with the lowest bid again, but construction costs had risen and the bid was 2 percent higher than the original estimate. The project, according to city documents, is now $5.22 million over budget.

McKnight's attorneys tried to convince city commissioners that they did not have to reject the original bids, but commissioners voted to do so.

Ms. Cooney defended Atlanta's purchasing practices for 22 years before going into private practice, according to a letter she wrote to Augusta's general counsel, Chiquita Johnson. She charged $325 an hour to represent the city in the McKnight litigation.

Ms. Cooney started working for the city in July, when she spent an hour talking with Ms. Johnson and Procurement Director Geri Sams. The next day's work included a lunch meeting with Ms. Johnson and Ms. Sams, research, producing court documents and exchanging e-mails. That cost $975, according to her bills.

The two sides agreed to a compromise soon after the lawsuit was filed in July. The city was allowed to proceed with the logistics of preparing the bid project, but city commissioners were prohibited from awarding the contract until the litigation was settled.

The city contended that Ms. Sams' department was correct to throw out McKnight's original bid because the company left out a document, a noncollusion affidavit, in its bid package. The city's contention that the next lowest bidder, RW Allen LLC, was in compliance with all of the necessary documents turned out to be false, according to statements made in court.

McKnight withdrew its lawsuit Sept. 2.

Although the litigation was over, Ms. Cooney continued to work for the city, reviewing an Open Records request for procurement documents, among other duties, according to her bills sent to the city.

Ms. Cooney included in her bills a letter to Ms. Johnson offering to continue to assist the city with legal help.

McKnight Construction was the most recent local business to sue the city over its purchasing practices.

A federal lawsuit against the city, alleging that contracts for goods and services are awarded unfairly and in a discriminatory manner, is pending.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.