Why Mont­gomery’s le­gal bills are ab­surdly high

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

Mont­gomery County ac­cu­mu­lated ex­ces­sive le­gal bills to pur­sue a law­suit against the de­sign­ers and builders of the longde­layed Paul S. Sar­banes Tran­sit Cen­ter in Sil­ver Spring. When all these pay­ments are added to­gether, Mont­gomery County, in a case that never went to trial, will have paid more than $18 mil­lion and will have re­ceived a set­tle­ment only $6.7 mil­lion higher. In­deed, not all in­voices have been tal­lied, so the county’s cost will be even higher.

I served on the Up­county Cit­i­zens Ad­vi­sory Board in Mont­gomery County. For more than 40 years, I lit­i­gated en­ergy is­sues as a fed­eral gov­ern­ment lawyer. When I was on the ad­vi­sory board, I of­ten asked county of­fi­cials why they im­me­di­ately hired out­side coun­sel ev­ery time a po­ten­tial lit­i­ga­tion sit­u­a­tion arose. I was told that they be­lieved they got bet­ter representation from out­side firms than from gov­ern­ment lawyers.

That is in­sult­ing to the thou­sands of fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment at­tor­neys who prac­tice through­out this coun­try. For the fi­nal 19 years of my ca­reer, I worked with 90 peo­ple in an of­fice that com­bined lawyers and ex­pert wit­nesses. Our mul­ti­party en­ergy lit­i­ga­tion dealt with sums of money many times in ex­cess of the tran­sit cen­ter claims. Our ad­min­is­tra­tive tri­als ran up to five months. At the time I re­tired, no one in our of­fice, in­clud­ing the high­est-level man­agers, earned more than $85 per hour. Our younger at­tor­neys and wit­nesses earned con­sid­er­ably less than that.

In sharp con­trast, the Saul Ewing firm billed $525 per hour for part­ners and $200 per hour for par­ale­gals. The no­tion that these at­tor­neys were vastly su­pe­rior to gov­ern­ment lawyers is be­lied by the fact that the judge threw out the county’s al­le­ga­tions of fraud, its de­mand for puni­tive dam­ages and its de­mand for court costs.

All crim­i­nal cases in Mont­gomery County are pro­fes­sion­ally lit­i­gated through the state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice. The county’s web­site fur­ther iden­ti­fies more than 45 lawyers in a sep­a­rate divi­sion who work on civil mat­ters.

When the tran­sit cen­ter lit­i­ga­tion was an­nounced and the out­side firm hired, it was stated that the law firm would work un­der the di­rec­tion of the lead at­tor­ney in the civil divi­sion. Many of the at­tor­neys in this divi­sion have im­pres­sive cre­den­tials. Were none ca­pa­ble of rep­re­sent­ing the county in this lit­i­ga­tion or work­ing with the law firm to hold down costs? It is ab­surd to pay $6.5 mil­lion for out­side coun­sel for a case that didn’t even go to trial.

Sim­i­larly, while some out­side ex­perts may be nec­es­sary, shouldn’t ad­min­is­tra­tors in Mont­gomery County, who sup­pos­edly were over­see­ing the con­tracts to build the tran­sit cen­ter, have been ca­pa­ble of draft­ing tes­ti­mony?

It is equally sad to see that none of the Demo­cratic can­di­dates for county ex­ec­u­tive ap­pear to have any prob­lem with these ex­ces­sive pay­ments. I want a county ex­ec­u­tive who will pe­ri­od­i­cally au­dit all county ser­vices.

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Paul S. Sar­banes Tran­sit Cen­ter in Sil­ver Spring in 2015.

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