LEGAL FEES GO UNCHECKED IN MANY MUNICIPALITIES
An analysis to determine the similarities between the modus operandi of
the Florida Bar and organized crime utilizing a Fort Lauderdale
Sun-Sentinel article on government lawyer legal fees.
The article is from the 1/7/98, electronic edition of the Fort Lauderdale,
Florida, Sun-Sentinel by staff writers Jenni Bergal and Jay Weaver.
All of the paragraphs in the newspaper article below are numbered for
convenience. I (Bob Allston) have also added my own paragraphs analizing
the newspaper article. In order to distinguish mine from those of the
newspaper, mine are indented, also independently numbered, and the first
paragraph in any series of my paragraphs is preceded with the word
Sun-Sentinel Copyright (c) 1998, Sun-Sentinel Company and South
Florida Interactive, Inc.
- When a law firm mistakenly billed Broward County $2,500 for a 20-hour
phone call, officials paid it without question.
- COMMENT: Also, discussed further along in this article is a lawyer's
charge of $2,500 FOR 20 HOURS TO REVIEW A LETTER as
is the same law firm's charge of $1,350 FOR A 10 HOUR
- The circumstances surrounding these three bills provides much insight
into how closely the modus operandi of the Florida Bar resembles that of
- To see this lets have a look at how these bills might have been
processed. First, it is reasonable to assume that each of these billing
transactions was reviewed around ten or more times by many different
- The lawyer (or lawyers) in the law firm who originated the charge.
- The clerk or secretary in the law firm that made out the bill to send
to the government.
- The government clerk or secretary that recorded the bill in the
- The person (sadly-- if any) in government responsible for reviewing
and approving bills.
- The clerk or secretary in government who made out the checks and
saw that they were sent off to the law firms.
- The clerk or secretary in the law firms who recorded the incoming
payment in the law firm's books.
- The partner, bookkeeper or accountant in the law firm who's job it is
to review the books, and determine how the money should be apportioned to
the various attorneys, overhead, management, operating expenses, etc., in
- The clerk or secretary who credited the portion of the payment going
to the lawyer to his account at the firm.
- The lawyer reviewing his own monthly account at the firm.
- The lawyer reviewing his own bank account.
- We should consider as well the possibility that either the law firm's
books could be audited or the government records could be audited on
either a systematic basis or on a surprise basis or that other people
might randomly or systematically request to see these records and how this
possibility is dealt with by all of the above people who are letting this
through. The newspaper reporters who wrote the story of course fit into
this category but it is probably reasonable to assume that their doing so
was not anticipated by any of the above people.
- All of these people of course knew that these bills were false on
their face; for people simply don't make 10 and 20 hour phone calls or
normally take 20 hours to review letters. Therefore they knew that
completing their respective tasks along the paper trial without either
reporting or otherwise seeking to have the matter investigated might well
involve them in either legal or ethical questions in their capacities as
employees of government or the law firms; concerning the possibility of a
serious crime-- fraud as a minimum. As well, one would assume many of
these people are simply honest people and would not like to see their
government cheated or such a gross mistake made.
- This poses the question of how could these bills get through all these
people? How is it that nobody apparently noticed these "billing errors"
until a few newspaper reporters going through masses of government books,
came across them? Gee-- a 20 hour $2,500 phone call??? Gee-- 20 hours and
$2,500 to review a letter???
- At this point, any reporter worth his ink would be hot on the paper
trail; for this is the kind of copy that sells papers-- prominent people
doing crooked and scandalous things. Moreover, exposing such corruption
gets to the basics of what we would hope every reporter sees as his/her
most valuable and necessary contribution to democratic society. Further,
I would presume it is in their own community as well.
- However, once they confirmed that the lawyers had actually received
and kept the money-- and thus completed the fraud, theft or whatever
lawyers want to call it-- and thus confirming they were onto serious
crime-- crime you and I would go to jail for-- they just dropped the
matter like a hot potato in all three cases.
- Indeed, out of the 30 (3 times 10) or so people who might have been
directly involved along the paper trail such as secretaries, office
managers, accountants, bookkeepers, lawyers (except of course obtaining a
declaration of innocence from the law firm's leading partner) none are
interviewed nor are we told they have even asked any such people about it.
- As well, out of all the people who may not have been directly in the
paper trail but who are still responsible for this money such as office
managers, accountants, lawyers, politicians, etc., in government or the
law firms, nothing is said about having asked any of them anything.
- As well, they don't appear to have presented these circumstances to any
legal experts and asked, dare I say-- is this billing fraud? They don't
appear to have presented the question-- dare I say-- to the prosecutor's
- All we get in all three cases put together, is a blatantly self
serving denial quoted above from a senior partner in one of the law firms
(which translated into a contemporary form of Sicilian legalese obviously
means "keepa you hands off"); and then the entire affair in each case is
neatly wrapped up for us in a conspicuously short and uninformative
paragraph-- and dropped like a hot potato. Indeed, we don't even get the
name of the lawyer billing $2,500 for the 20 hour phone call-- the opening
statement in the article.
- Here again, I'm not in any way criticizing the reporters. They are
going as far as they dare. And indeed this is a most important point-- for
in these circumstances we learn just how far the legal establishment is
letting them go-- not very far.
- Another mystery is why such obviously fraudulent bills were placed in
the paper trail to begin with. For, if the firms wanted to bill for
another 10 or 20 hours work; whether or not the firms had done the work,
it appears that with the chronic indifference to good accounting practices
that surfaces throughout this article, they could have simply billed for
another 10 or 20 hours office time, with whatever flimsy documentation was
required, if any, saying nothing about a phone call or reviewing a letter,
and nobody would have, or indeed with these accounting practices, could
have, questioned anything. It was only the gross absurdity right on the
face of these bills that brought attention to them.
- On the other hand, if they were in fact innocent billing errors, the
individual lawyers involved, their law firms, and government people
certainly knew about it and had plenty of time to identify the error and
give the money back, before it was discovered by the reporters.
- We don't of course know whether anyone did in fact try to report any
of these things; and if they did, what happened to them. Lets hope no one
lost their job or had other problems for trying to be good people and
reporting these things. Indeed, if my experiences in Lee County are any
guide, we scarcely need to speculate on the reason in the event they were
silent. With smear campaigns in the press, crooked psychological
examinations, fabricated criminal charges, etc. awaiting them, they could
well have thought they could lose their jobs or otherwise get into more
trouble by making an issue of it than participating in it. Some nasty
surprises could be in store for the paper and reporters as well.
- And once of course a small number of these incidences transpire, these
people in government and the law firms become tainted with possible
criminal activity and are thus less and less likely to confront crooked
activity of any kind as time goes on, which of course inures to the
benefit of these lawyers. And this of course may have played a role in the
past; so that these people are afraid to report these current
- Finally, to place these "billing errors" in context, we might compare
them to the robbery of a jewelry store in which some lawyers or anyone
else just walk into a jewelry store, pick up a diamond necklace worth
$2,500 from the display, tell the clerk that they are stealing it, and
then walk out the door with it, unhindered.
- Subsequently, a newspaper reporter finds out about it, asks the thief
what happened, and the THIEF STATES, "We're going to
make mistakes. It's mortifying when you find out. It's just the way it
is." And returns the necklace. No one-- store clerk, owner, newspaper
reporter, or anyone else makes an issue out of it because either they all
fear reprisal from the thieves, politicians or others, or they (with the
exception of the reporters) are getting some kind of kick back or favors
out of it.
- Ken Jenne, whose firm made two of the above "billing errors", is Fort
Lauderdale's most prominent lawyer-politician and about the time that this
article appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, he was appointed by the governor of
Florida to be sheriff of Broward County to fill in for the previous
sheriff who died during his elected term. He will hold this position until
elections are held in November and has already announced an intention to
run for sheriff then.
- Thus we have the most powerful LAWYER-POLITICIAN
from Florida's second largest county with his hands caught blatantly
in the public till, and who as a minimum should be investigated for
billing fraud by the prosecutors office, now being appointed by the
governor as sheriff. Further, an ARTICLE in
the paper, for what its worth, claims the office of sheriff isn't even
needed and exists only for patronage purposes.
- The articles exposing the billing fraud appeared beginning about
January 7, 1998, in the electronic edition of the Fort Lauderdale
Sun-/sentinel. The announcement by the governor that Jenne was being
appointed to be sheriff was also made around this time. And although there
were over twenty articles written about him between January 6, and
February 21, I found nothing in any of them about the billing issue. It
- Almost certainly the Sun-Sentinel must have been receiving phone calls
and letters to the editor about the propriety of appointing someone for
sheriff who was involved in something of that nature. Thus, what it
appears like to me is that the Sun-Sentinel was doing its best to alert
citizens to what Jenne was involved in but once the announcement was made
that he would be sheriff, the Sun-Sentinel was afraid of him and dropped
the issue. Moreover, most of the subsequent articles are upbeat and
present him in a favorable light. I found it all too common in Fort Myers
for the press to refuse to address the crooked dealing of prominent
government lawyers and politicians, and with this going for him, one would
think he would also have little difficulty winning the November election
- Clearly, one can now expect billing fraud to be even more rife in
Broward county, a part of the intimidation/reward process, than it has
been, at least among his lawyer and political cronies. This however, is
likely only the tip of the iceberg. According to the paper, Jenne is
foregoing an income from his law practice of better than $500,000, for the
sheriff's pay of about $124,000.
- However, the sheriff's budget is about $250,000,000/yr. And, if there
is no one around willing to call a spade a spade with his previous billing
fraud, it scarcely bodes well for anyone doing it when he controls the
power of the sheriff's office. For of course controlling the sheriff's
office lends itself to no end of opportunities for repression,
intimidation, rewarding, and all manner of crooked dealing.
- Aside from these problems, to be effective a sheriff should be
educated and experienced in such areas as criminology and drug addiction,
as well as the administration of such a large organization dealing with
thousands of employees and a quarter billion dollars a year. The paper
says he is interested in drug treatment programs and building a special
facility for the mentally ill; which on the face of it sounds good.
However whether this is political posturing or the best way to spend the
money is something else. Moreover, he should be spending his time studying
and implementing the best proven programs and administrative procedures,
not preoccupied with building a political empire as the paper says he will
- To sum up, in our comparison of the modus operandi of the legal
profession with that of organized crime, I think the foregoing discussion
of the three billing transactions establishes the following:
- Clearly identifiable criminal activity transpired in government that
many lawyers, government officials and employees in and out of government
were well aware of and which was either not reported or if reported,
- It was only discovered because (1), unexpected outside people examined
the records and (2), the criminal activity was absurdly blatant and
obvious on its face.
- Although it was totally obvious on its face, it was not reported or
suppressed because those who knew about it and had the moral or legal
obligation to report it or otherwise do something about it, were either
afraid to do so, or stood to benefit from it.
- In summary, these three billing "errors" more than suggest that these
government organizations openly facilitate billing fraud from lawyers
supported by a system of intimidation and/or reward; as is commonly
associated with organized crime.
- When the city attorney in Lauderhill charged more than $206,000 for
legal services last year, officials had no way of knowing whether he or
other lawyers in his firm did the work. And when the Broward Sheriff's
Office paid $1.2 million to a law firm last year, checks were cut even
though the firm was the only one to verify its lawyers' hourly work.
- COMMENT: The practices discussed above are of course gross violations
of commonly accepted accounting principles and practice and I am surprised
that such a complete lack of accountability is even legal in the public
sector. As to legal practice, lawyers are supposed to avoid both
impropriety and the appearance of impropriety; something of clearly no
concern to this lawyer. Go HERE to review
legal ethics requirements.
- The fact that both the public sector employer and service provider are
willing and able to flout these conventions, if not laws, is even more
ominous considering the huge sums of taxpayer money involved and the fact
that one such organization is a large county Sheriff's Department; indeed
the sheriff's department from the second most populous county in the
fourth most populous state. Is this money going directly or indirectly to
buy cops? prosecutors? judges? Is it being converted to cash and
disappearing? Is it going to numbered accounts in offshore banks?
- Indeed, if this relationship between the sheriff and this lawyer is so
innocent, why would they want to so blatantly flout both accounting
principles and legal ethics principles in this bastion of police powers--
for good or ill? Indeed, the Sheriff's department has over a million
dollars just for lawyers, surely they can afford the services of an
independent accountant, or at least an in house accountant to keep track
of all this money. Where are their accountants? Are they refusing to have
anything to do with it although they review other bills? Have they been
ordered off the job?
- As set forth ELSEWHERE in these
articles, this lawyer is a former cop and after going to law school made
his reputation defending cops in labor issues. He now presumably defends
cops in all areas thus knows all the bent cops and how to use them with
this massive amount of unaccounted for taxpayer money if he wants to.
- Indeed, this kind of free and easy money can buy a lot of "protection"
for corrupt politicians, cops, and lawyers seeking to silence their
critics or win elections; should they choose to employ it in such a
manner. Bent cops, politicians, and lawyers working together can fabricate
bomb threats. They can plant illegal drugs on people. They can fabricate
DUIs. They can put people in jail and throw away the keys. They can run
smear campaigns in the media. They can find psychologists who will find
all kinds of mental problems. They can force people to be defended in
court by bent lawyers. They can have cases tried with bent judges. They
can destroy people financially. In short they can destroy their critics
with little difficulty; as set forth in ANOTHER
SECTION of this Web site.
- Indeed, Broward county is only one county removed from Lee county
where I had my problems and it is known to be a much larger faster paced
county than Lee County, being bordered on the South by Dade County (Miami)
and Palm Beach County (Palm Beach) on the North.
- The bottom line here is that this sheriff and his lawyer are blatantly
flouting accountability requirements for this huge sum of public money and
one would be prudent to assume there is a reason other than the sheriff
doesn't want to be bothered checking on it or he doesn't have the money or
people to do it.
- Indeed this situation would be the dream of any crime syndicate; vast
sums of money coming and going through a big powerful county sheriff's
office with no accountability or tracking whatsoever. Think twice before
you cross these guys.
- And with the newly appointed sheriff, Ken Jenne, having a long history
of power brokering as well as having his firm's hands in the public till,
such a history of the powerful organization he is taking over would appear
to be all too compatible.
- These lawyers are members of an elite group that frequent the same
clubs, get invitations to political fundraisers and sometimes refer work
to one another. They dominate a government legal industry in South Florida
that received at least $62.8 million in tax dollars in 1997. If that money
were spent differently, it could pay for up to 1,800 new teachers or 1,600
police officers. Yet many of the cities and county agencies that hire
these lawyers fail to keep tabs on how the public's money is being spent
on legal services.
- When it's time to hire and pay lawyers, local governments play by
different rules than those they use for architects, engineers or builders.
Most of the time, city and county charters don't require law firms to bid
for work. Nor do their bills face the same scrutiny as those of other
- South Florida governments tend to use an informal honor system for
lawyers, with few checks and balances. In the worst cases, rules are
nonexistent, record keeping is sloppy and officials approve bills without
WHAT LAWYERS DO FOR GOVERNMENT
- COMMENT: Here again, the legal profession is placing itself above
society's rules that everyone else has to follow. Lawyers don't have to
bid on work like everyone else. And then when they get the work they can
just run up a fat bill without it being scrutinized like everyone else's
- And with such blatant despotism, the door is simply wide open for
numerous forms of illegal/unethical dealing, cronyism, favoritism,
intimidation, influence peddling, money under the table, buying and
selling politicians, etc.; all carried out above and beyond the reach of
the law. For instance, in Lee County I was blatantly lied to about the law
by a county lawyer in order to favor the interests of certain city hall
good old boys. Organized crime could only dream of such a sweet deal.
- WHO WORKS:
- IN-HOUSE: Lawyers hired as employees by local government. They are
paid an annual salary and benefits.
- CONTRACT FIRMS: Private lawyers who are employed by outside firms and
also serve as attorneys for cities. Cities pay them a set amount each year
to do the same thing as in-house lawyers. In addition, they bill an hourly
rate for work beyond their retainer.
- SPECIALISTS: Outside law firms are often hired case-by-case. Rates
range from $100 to $300 an hour for attorneys.
- WHAT THEY DO:
- IN-HOUSE: Lawyers attend meetings and provide legal opinions to
elected officials and other governmental boards. They also write contracts
and deal with personnel problems.
- CONTRACT FIRMS: They handle the same work as in-house lawyers, but in
addition they do specialty work, such as defending lawsuits and handling
- SPECIALISTS: These firms specialize in such fields as litigation,
labor negotiations and bond work.
- The Sun-Sentinel's examination of legal costs in 49 South Florida
cities and county agencies revealed:
- Many local governments don't review attorneys' bills to ensure that
work is done and charges are accurate. Bills often lack basic information
-- who did what work, how long it took and how much it cost. Officials
rarely verified the work performed and instead concentrated on whether the
charges added up.
- For instance, when the firm of Conrad, Scherer &
Jenne accidentally billed Miramar 10 hours for a phone call in May about a
problem with a developer, city officials approved and paid the $1,350
charge without noticing the error, the newspaper found.
- COMMENT: It is worth noting that the above statement calling the
billing "accidental" and an "error", is probably an example of libel law
suit insurance for the newspaper; for it would appear to be difficult for
the paper to know this beyond the obviously dubious claims of innocence by
the law firm. In like manner, the statement that city officials didn't
notice the "error" is also most likely libel suit insurance; for it is
almost certain that people in city government knew about this "billing
error", as discussed in previous comments in this article.
- Cities and county agencies rarely require private law firms to bid for
specialty work such as defending officials against lawsuits. Much is at
stake -- at least $20.3 million in services last year.
- Some in-house attorneys have a monopoly over clusters of cities or an
exclusive deal with one county agency. Sometimes, they not only approve
outside firms' bills but their own as well. "It's important to monitor
legal bills. We're using taxpayers' money. We don't want to waste it,"
said Sandra Hudson, who audits law firms' bills for Palm Beach County.
"Whether it's a legal bill or buying a piece of equipment, it's the same
- THERE ARE CRITICS:
- Lawyers who work for local government grumble about petty politics and
boring meetings. But the pay is decent and they never get stiffed.
- They've rarely had to vie for local government business the same way
as other professionals. Some critics say it's because many of the public
officials who make the laws -- and write government charters -- are
lawyers. Others say local politicians are too deferential to the legal
establishment, evidenced by the careless way many cities and county
agencies review and pay lawyers' bills. The state's top legal official
warns that local governments are failing taxpayers if they are not poring
over legal bills. Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth said it's the
only way governments can get a sense of the quality of the work and can
catch costly billing errors.
- But even when agencies such as the North Broward
Hospital District carefully check lawyers' bills, mistakes slip through.
The district paid the firm Conrad, Scherer & Jenne $2,500 when it was
accidentally billed for 20 hours to review a letter in October 1996,
- "We're going to make mistakes," said Ken Jenne, a partner in the firm.
"It's mortifying when you find it. It's just the way it is." This type of
billing blunder, uncovered by Sun-Sentinel reporters, appears to be rare.
It can occur in the private and public sectors, but when it happens in
government, taxpayers -- not shareholders -- foot the bill.
- DETAILS MISSING:
- Insurance companies and major corporations typically require law
firms' bills to include the date the work was done, the initials of the
person who did the work, a narrative describing the type of work, the
number of hours spent, the hourly rate, a breakout of expenses and the
- But in the newspaper's review of two major firms' bills, key details
were missing from invoices for seven of the 18 cities and agencies they
- Sea Ranch Lakes and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, for example, use Josias,
Goren, Cherof, Doody & Ezrol as their town attorneys. They paid the firm
$80,264 last year. Neither town receives invoices with billable time or a
breakout of which lawyers did what -- just brief summaries of work
performed. Bills are reviewed by the town attorneys, then by town
officials. "I look at them pretty carefully," said Lauderdale-by-the-Sea
Town Manager Bob Baldwin. "It wouldn't matter if they put their hours on
the bill or not." In Oakland Park, Donald J. Doody, a Josias, Goren
partner who served as city attorney until April, billed the same way.
- He also signed off on purchase orders for his firm's payments before
they went to the city manager for approval, records show. The firm's
attorneys say each city sets its own standards for legal billings, and
inconsistencies in billing practices are widespread among South Florida
cities and agencies. Some want specifics -- others don't care.
- "That's really an issue driven by the client," said Jim Cherof, of
Josias, Goren. "Different administrators and administrative staffs have
different needs for those numbers. Some elected officials want more
detail." But a lack of detail in lawyers' bills raises questions about
the type of work being done and who's doing it, say accountants who work
for cities in South Florida that require more information. Leanne
Williams, senior accountant for the city of West Palm Beach, said
imprecise bills make it nearly impossible to tell whether a low-cost
paralegal or a highly-paid partner did the work. "Each piece of paper
should stand alone. As an accountant, it would drive me nuts," Williams
said. "It would be an incomplete invoice. I'd need to know who was working
- COMMENT: Here it appears this accountant is going as far as he can to
call a spade a spade without getting into libel. And again the question is
begged-- who will call a spade a spade ?
- Details were missing when Ruden McClosky Smith Schuster & Russell
billed the Broward School Board for work on school financing and
construction projects. At least five monthly bills, totaling $24,052, were
not itemized. Instead, they contained a few brief sentences about the
work. Attorneys' names, rates and total hours appeared at the bottom in
- School Board member Lois Wexler demanded to see the invoices at a
school board meeting after learning they had been paid. When she saw them,
she was alarmed by their vagueness. "I was concerned that the staff went
ahead and paid all those bills," Wexler said.
- But a Ruden McClosky attorney said school finance officials, who were
responsible for monitoring the bills, had never asked for detailed
information before May 1997. When they did, the firm revised its format to
provide more information.
- BILLING VARIANCES:
- Sometimes the same firm bills its government clients differently. One
client may get lots of detail, the other may get little.
- The firm Conrad, Scherer & Jenne, for example, provides comprehensive
bills to the tax-assisted North Broward Hospital District because board
members require every private law firm to present them that way. "We (the
district) made it a policy so no one can run from it," said Jenne, the
district's general counsel. "It's a way to get control (over the bills)."
Yet the same firm doesn't provide the South Broward Hospital District
similar details because it's not required. The firm does medical
malpractice work for the district, which generated $268,536 in bills last
year, records show.
- William Scherer, the firm's managing partner, said providing the
information creates extra work and is costly. If a client asks the firm to
do it, it will. If it doesn't, the firm won't bother, he said. "We used
to never do it for anyone," Scherer added.
- A few cities have always insisted on detailed legal bills. Elected
officials in Hallandale and Lauderdale Lakes, for instance, scrutinize the
bills and expenses themselves. The Hallandale City Commission once
rejected a private firm's charges for business lunches during a trial. "In
Hallandale, every legal bill is on the agenda," said City Attorney Richard
Kane, a long-time city employee. "We've stricken $10 parking charges. We
had a lawyer park across the street (from city hall) in an expensive lot.
The commissioners said, `No way, Charlie.'"
- THE COSTS GO UP:
- Broward School Board members were alarmed at the district's high legal
bills when they reached $2.5 million in 1996. Board members figured they
could gain more control and accountability over spiraling costs by
creating a law department at the district's glass headquarters in Fort
Lauderdale. They hired attorney Ed Marko, the district's outside general
counsel who had provided legal advice to the board since 1968. Marko put
together a legal staff of six to work directly for the school board.
- Last year, the board's legal costs rose to almost $3.1 million. Most
of the increase was attributed to Marko's new department. Diana Wasserman,
chairman of the school board's legal services committee, said it's too
early to gauge whether the district made the right financial decision to
establish its own law department. But she said she tried unsuccessfully to
persuade her colleagues to require lawyers to compete for the district's
in-house legal business rather than give it to Marko. "We had not reviewed
the legal business of the board for 20 years," Wasserman said. "I felt if
we were going to do this, we should do it the right way."
School Board member Abe Fischler said he and other members opposed bidding
the work because they thought Marko had expertise and familiarity with the
district. "Here we had a person who really knew the system," Fischler
- BETTER OR WORSE?
- Like the Broward School Board, many South Florida counties and large
cities have opted to set up in-house legal staff. "It's much more
economical and efficient," said Denise Dytrych, Palm Beach County's
general counsel, who heads a staff of 56. Dytrych's department, which
spent $5.17 million on legal costs last year, is similar to those in
Broward and Dade counties. They are set up like large law firms. Dade's
legal department, with a staff of 123, spent $17.75 million on legal
costs. Broward's, with a staff of 79, spent $8.3 million. Of those total
costs, the three counties still spent at least 20 percent of their legal
costs on outside lawyers. Many South Florida cities insist it's cheaper to
hire private firms than pay in-house attorneys' benefits, pensions and
other expenses. Some think private firms can provide better expertise and
- Five of seven cities in south Palm Beach County and 22 of 28 in
Broward have hired private firms to act as city attorneys. But that
doesn't necessarily control legal costs. Cities pay these firms a flat
monthly retainer for basic work such as attending meetings and giving
legal opinions. Cities shell out extra -- from $125 to $150 an hour -- for
work that doesn't fall under the retainer, such as land-use disputes and
employee discrimination cases.
- A handful of firms charge hourly rates for attending planning and
zoning or code enforcement board meetings, in addition to their retainers.
Most firms generate bigger bills for handling lawsuits, employee disputes,
ethics matters and other specialty work.
- Take the growing city of Plantation. Its legal costs grew from
$772,597 in 1995 to $918,401 last year -- a 19 percent jump. The increase
went mostly to Plantation City Attorney Donald J. Lunny Jr.'s law firm. It
was paid $658,569 last year -- 26 percent more than in 1995.
- "The city of Plantation has been sued a lot because of its
conservative approach (to development disputes)," Lunny said. "As a
result, its legal fees are higher than a city willing to settle." But for
a handful of cities, particularly those facing fewer lawsuits, turning to
private city attorneys can be a relative bargain. Lauderdale Lakes City
Attorney James Brady, a partner in a private firm, was paid $72,147 by the
city last year. That was $23,322 less than he made in 1995.
- "The candid reason is that I bill a real 60-minute hour. I bill by the
clock," said Brady, whose bills account for most of the city's legal
costs. "I work for my client. We try to be very efficient. If I can do
something in an hour, I don't add seven more hours to my bill. You don't
need 14 associates typing Hamlet."
- COMMENT: In saying he bills for a real 60 minute hour and if he can do
something in an hour he doesn't add seven more hours to the bill, this
lawyer clearly doesn't have a very high opinion of billing practices in
- ONLY THE BEST:
- Sometimes local governments decide they need the best advice their
money can buy. So they hire elite firms such as labor specialists Muller,
Mintz, Kornreich, Caldwell & Casey, a Miami-based firm that earned more
than $1 million dollars from 14 local government agencies last year.
- The firm's costly, clients say, but worth the money. Jim Bramnick, the
firm's administrative partner, said government is getting a break from
firms like his. While they bill government about $125 an hour, they often
charge corporate clients up to twice as much.
- And bills are piling up all over South Florida due to the recent surge
in federal discrimination complaints and labor lawsuits, city officials
say. "The labor portion, particularly police and fire, has really gotten
out of hand," said Davie's Finance Director Chris Wallace. "It's one
legal battle after another."
- City officials worried about losing costly lawsuits look for top-notch
talent to fight their battles, but they usually do it without competitive
bidding. Sometimes, their choices are limited because few area firms
practice a certain type of law. Cities also come to rely on the same firms
they've used for years.
- But that logic may not be cost-efficient. "We bid services virtually
across the board, but we don't do it with lawyers," said Hillsborough
County Commissioner Joe Chillura, an advocate of competitive bidding for
lawyers. "That should tell you something. It's a patronage process." And
it's one that some critics consider too cozy for the public good.
- "These hirings are typically the result of the famous good-old-boy
network," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on
Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group. "These are
people who used to work with each other. Or who belong to the same country
club. Or who contribute to campaigns. "The bottom line is that taxpayers'
interests are not being served."
This is a page in the Web site entitled Legal Reform
Through Transforming the Discipline of Law into a Science.