Originally created 02/03/05

City attorney rebuts talk of excessive fees



Some commissioners thought City Attorney Stephen Shepard was sticking the city with excessive legal fees, but on Tuesday, Mr. Shepard presented them with information challenging their figures.

In a closed-door commission meeting, Mr. Shepard distributed copies of a memo to the mayor and commissioners showing that the city paid his firm, Shepard Plunkett Hamilton Boudreaux & Tisdale, $403,376.67 last year, about one-fourth of the $1.5 million commissioners alleged.

The problem came from the city's Finance Department, which supplied Commissioner Betty Beard with the total amount paid to Mr. Shepard's firm last year without separating $1.19 million that went into the firm's trust account to be used to pay for real-estate acquisition and authorized city projects.

In a Jan. 21 commission meeting, Mrs. Beard, armed with the misleading data, passed around copies of attorney's fees comparing Mr. Shepard's fees to those of former attorney Jim Wall, which were $806,176.81 in 2002 and $750,229.01 in 2003.

Mrs. Beard and other commissioners criticized Mr. Shepard for making $400,000 as local counsel for the city's $160 million utility bond deal. They also contended the city was ripped off by excessive fees and charges in the utility bond issue and in Augusta Regional Airport's $21.99 million bond issue, for which Mr. Shepard will receive $126,000 as local counsel.

That meeting was public, but Mr. Shepard went behind closed doors to correct the erroneous information concerning his 2004 billings. He declined to comment on the fee issue.

"I have to respect their privilege, whether they respect mine or not," he said.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Beard said she had received her data from Finance Department Director David Persaud and had called a second time to discuss it.

"I was hoping they would be right," she said. "That type thing happens all the time. Remember (Former Fire Chief) Ronnie Few? And that was awfully embarrassing, and it went on for years."

Mr. Few was investigated by a special Richmond County grand jury in 2000 and was finally exonerated last month.

Mrs. Beard said Mr. Shepard was "very gracious" about what has happened.

"If I made a mistake where his firm is concerned, I'm sorry," she said. "We'll try to be sure it doesn't happen again."

The commission committee that was appointed in January to study legal fees, bond issues and the bond underwriter's contract will not be disbanded because of the flawed data, Mrs. Beard said.

"And the person who sent that to me should be reprimanded," she said. "As a commissioner, I should be able to ask for information and get it."

Commissioner Barbara Sims agreed.

"We have the right to ask questions, and we have the right to expect correct answers," she said. "I'm glad there were questions brought up so that there were answers brought forward, and the truth was brought to the surface. As commissioners, that's what we're called to do, present things, and to question things and then to acknowledge when we're right or when we're wrong."

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.

The numbers:

The Augusta Commission paid City Attorney Steve Shepard's firm, Shepard Plunkett Hamilton Boudreaux & Tisdale, $403,376.67 last year, about one-fourth of the $1.5 million alleged by Commissioner Betty Beard.