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City continues to use costly outside counsel despite staff attorneys

Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 4:12 PM
Last updated Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 2:03 AM
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While the amount has decreased recently, the city of Au­gusta continues to rely heavily on costly outside counsel, spending nearly $700,000 on legal fees in 2012 despite employing five staff attorneys.

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Attorney Jim Plunkett handled most of the city's transactions related to construction and operations of the Augusta Convention Center and the parking garage on Reynolds Street. His law firm, Au­gusta-based Shepard, Plunkett, Ham­ilton & Boudreaux, was paid $460,569 by the city in 2012.  EMILY ROSE BENNETT/FILE
EMILY ROSE BENNETT/FILE
Attorney Jim Plunkett handled most of the city's transactions related to construction and operations of the Augusta Convention Center and the parking garage on Reynolds Street. His law firm, Au­gusta-based Shepard, Plunkett, Ham­ilton & Boudreaux, was paid $460,569 by the city in 2012.

Combined with staff salaries, the government spent nearly $1.3 million on representation during 2012. By comparison, Columbia County spent less than $400,000, according to county officials.

City records show $695,462 went to three Augusta law firms and two Atlanta firms, but the bulk, $460,569, was paid to Augusta-based Shepard, Plunkett, Ham­ilton & Boudreaux.

The firm includes Jim Plunkett, who handled most of the city's transactions related to construction and operations of the Augusta Convention Center and a parking garage to serve it; former county attorney Stephen Shepard; and Dan Hamilton, who represented Augusta in a costly wrongful-death lawsuit settled last year.

The legal details associated with the convention center and parking garage, projects funded by sales-tax funds and a bond issue cost Augusta $45,080 in legal fees.

An additional $345,748 in legal fees included labor-intensive litigation leading to the Augusta Com­mis­­sion's decision in Septem­ber to settle a wrongful-death claim. Ryan Holt and Michelle Borror were killed in a 2011 mobile home fire after a city electrical inspection.

The firm received $69,741 in fees for real estate and utilities work, most paid using sales-tax funds.

Augusta Regional Airport racked up legal bills of $148,595 during 2012, all from the Atlanta law firm Freeman Mathis & Gary. The charges were paid from airport coffers, mostly for airline contract, construction and personnel-related legal issues.

Handling $53,634 in litigation against former Rich­mond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength was the Augusta firm Wall Ellison LLP, which is former city attorney Jim Wall and Jim Ellison. The firm represented Strength, Richmond County Clerk of Court Elaine Johnson and occasionally the commission in about a dozen lawsuits during the year.

Andrew MacKenzie, who heads the city law office, said bills for outside counsel are within his annual budget for them, even with elected officials having their own choice of representation. He said the complexity of the work, such as Plunkett's work on the convention center, and occasional unexpected volume preclude Augusta from ever having an in-house staff capable of performing it all. His five staff attorneys and three legal secretaries cost Augusta $577,412 in salaries.

“The needs are so incredibly diverse,” MacKenzie said. “It’s my opinion that the structure that’s in place is more efficient.”

The office has made a conscious effort to conserve, as Augusta’s external legal bills are down, he said. In 2011, the city paid $772,809 to outside firms, down from $1.7 million the year before.

Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said the county keeps its legal fees down by retaining the Augusta law firm Hull Barrett to handle all its legal issues under a negotiated rate, with Hull Barrett partner Doug Batchelor serving as county attorney.

“Fortunately, the Hull firm is large enough that they could handle pretty much anything,” Johnson said.

A smaller player in Augusta’s outside counsel business – Randy Frails of Frails & Wilson, which billed for $22,430 in city legal work during the year – said he’d like to see the city spread the work better.

Frails, who is black and was recently selected to be part of the Richmond County sheriff’s counsel, said he hoped future outsourcing would better reflect the shifting balance of power to blacks in city government.

The spread of legal work between in-house and outside counsel seems unavoidable in litigation-prone Augusta, Frails said, but he wishes more of it went to black law firms like his.

“We just think the city should spread more of the work around,” he said.

At least one Augusta commissioner is not convinced the system is working. New District 7 Commissioner Donnie Smith said he’d recently requested a tally of legal fees for outside counsel.

“I just want to make sure that we're getting the best representation we can,” Smith said.

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said Augusta has more at stake that requires the extra expense. Plus, the law department, like many Augusta departments, remains understaffed. MacKenzie said he's kept an attorney slot open for several years because of budget constraints.

“It takes a lot to protect Augusta,” Guilfoyle said. "We could get sued for anything."

CITY’S LEGAL BILLS

City records show $695,462 went to three Augusta law firms and two Atlanta firms in 2012.

Shepard, Plunkett, Hamilton & Boudreaux$460,569
Freeman Mathis & Gary$148,595
Wall Ellison$53,634
Frails & Wilson$22,430
Troutman Sanders$10,234
DATABASE: CITY’S LEGAL BILLS

Online Database by Caspio
Click here to load this Caspio Online Database.

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Sweet son
10104
Points
Sweet son 01/19/13 - 07:36 pm
9
1
Dumb Bumbling Fred and the Commission..........

are responsible for most of this! Maybe they need to have a retreat on how to make wise decisions which will not result in lawsuits against the county. I think this is good advice but I realize that they are not smart enough to take it!

palmetto1008
9782
Points
palmetto1008 01/19/13 - 07:48 pm
2
3
It seems to me that it would
Unpublished

It seems to me that it would be very difficult to have an opinion on this without having some comparative data. Even with that, I assume there could be wide variations from year to year.

linux
96
Points
linux 01/19/13 - 08:50 pm
5
0
Campaign Donations

It would be good to list what the campaign donations of these law firms are. It might be that part of the incentive was to basically get some of that taxpayer money back to fund reelections.

Little Lamb
45360
Points
Little Lamb 01/19/13 - 10:01 pm
12
1
Black Power?

From the story:

Randy Frails of Frails & Wilson, which billed for $22,430 in city legal work during the year – said . . . he hoped future outsourcing would better reflect the shifting balance of power to blacks in city government.

This thought process is somewhere between sad and scary. What in the world does he mean by “balance of power to blacks”? Shouldn’t our city government be about service to citizens instead of power to blacks or whites or Asians or Latinos or Arabs or Australians? Power is what government seeks. Power over its citizens. It cares nothing about serving us.

GnipGnop
11904
Points
GnipGnop 01/19/13 - 10:54 pm
8
1
Suprised?

Not hardly, a do nothing stand for nothing Mayor and a commission that would burn to death in a fire arguing over who should hold the fire extinguisher....

JRC2024
8556
Points
JRC2024 01/19/13 - 11:01 pm
7
2
The money should stay in

The money should stay in Augusta and should go to the firm that submits the best rate and with attorneys that can handle the problem regardless of what Mr. Frails says. His statement sounds like he is trying to steer the money flow to the black lawyers. No problem with them doing the work but leave race out of it-award on ability.

AutumnLeaves
7143
Points
AutumnLeaves 01/19/13 - 11:36 pm
6
1
I heard...

I heard an interesting little tidbit that just about made my head explode. Did somebody get paid about $500,000 to do a study about racial fairness in business opportunities in Augusta/Richmond County? If so, who paid it and who was paid this exorbitant fee? And to what purpose? Don't people understand YET what Martin Luther King, Jr. was saying? Also, apparently Mr. Frails doesn't get it, or doesn't care, about the true meaning of equality of the races that King prayed for. His comment about "balance of power to blacks" betrays his intentions. Roundtree would be better served by other counsel; these words of Frails do nothing to convince the wary, law-abiding citizenry of Augusta that Roundtree has turned a new leaf. "Content of character", Martin Luther King, Jr. said, not "color of skin". Let's not go backwards. Rise above. Don't sink into the abyss.

Doug Lively
72
Points
Doug Lively 01/20/13 - 01:09 am
3
0
Augusta Regional Airport

is a fully self funded, profitable Enterprise which pulls nothing from local taxpayers. They "racked up" legal bills to ensure contracts and documents were legal and the Airport was protected.

Riverman1
82436
Points
Riverman1 01/20/13 - 08:13 am
4
0
Reality

Racial politics, including government contracts, is not unique to Augusta. It happens in most areas over the country where the population is about evenly divided between black and white or Hispanic. Don't believe for one minute, people don't vote along racial lines and expect government to favor THEIR race in governmental decisions.

Techfan
6461
Points
Techfan 01/20/13 - 09:44 am
1
3
So which leaders are buddies

So which leaders are buddies with the law firm?
The airport has never received any tax dollars? It sits in a nice oceanfront location too, right?

Willow Bailey
20580
Points
Willow Bailey 01/20/13 - 10:38 am
3
1
The city should really

The city should really outsource all of their legal work when
you consider the ultimate tax payer cost of the city attorney's office handling the Tee Center. Kind of hard to tell that the city was actually the client, but then I guess it depends on how one defines "city".

itsanotherday1
42228
Points
itsanotherday1 01/20/13 - 01:02 pm
2
1
LL, I totally agree with the

asessment of black power. That was the thing that jumped out at me from the article. How about just using firms that can get the job done at the least cost? If Frails can do that, then give him the business by all means.

GnipGnop
11904
Points
GnipGnop 01/20/13 - 01:39 pm
2
1
I have a question for Doug...

If the airport is a profitable business shouldn't it pay it's own legal bills? The comment about tax dollars is laughable too.

corgimom
31462
Points
corgimom 01/20/13 - 08:50 pm
0
1
Too bad another $10 or so

Too bad another $10 or so couldn't have been spent to make sure that the land under the parking deck didn't have liens on it.

corgimom
31462
Points
corgimom 01/20/13 - 08:52 pm
2
1
Since the Airport is a fully

Since the Airport is a fully funded Enterprise that doesn't use any taxpayer dollars, then why were they given a clock that was paid for by taxpayer dollars?

Sweet son
10104
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Sweet son 01/20/13 - 09:32 pm
0
1
@ Little Lamb and itsanotherday1

All three of us agree that we are damn tired of people who do business with the Richmond County government feeling that they are "entitled" because they are black. If anyone can do the work for the least price then give them the work but Mr. Frails and his comments do not even deserve comment.

GnipGnop
11904
Points
GnipGnop 01/20/13 - 10:18 pm
1
0
“It takes a lot to protect Augusta,”

“It takes a lot to protect Augusta,” Guilfoyle said. "We could get sued for anything."

Like making stupid decisions in the procurement department? Or the X-Mart decision? I understand you have a district to represent but you also have to be smart enough not to cost the city in mundane lawsuits because you will not stand up and vote with common sense instead of emotion. (or in some cases leave the room, vote present or just don't bother to show up for months at a time)

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