The big budget story of the 2018 proposed budget is a huge, gaping $13.4m over-spend in the Judgment and Claims Fund managed by the City Attorney’s Office. According to Budget Director Ben Noble, as interviewed by David Kroman, "the cost over-run in the Judgment and Claims Fund was the biggest single financial challenge we faced” in assembling a proposed budget.
The Budget Office proposes that the City will pay down this budget gap from the General Fund -- $12m in additional appropriations from 2017 and $1.4m added to the budget for 2018. That means there was less money available for new initiatives, including homelessness services and responding to the heroin epidemic.
Notably, Budget Director Noble “says officials will look at how the City Attorney’s Office is using outside counsel, which has the potential to be more expensive than in-house work.” Here are a few places where the City Budget Office and City Council may start that inquiry:
- In one case, the City Attorney’s Office is paying $820.33/hr. for a Seattle-based attorney’s legal advice. That’s outrageous.
- This August, the City Attorney’s Office hired a law firm at $550/hr. to write a 17-page motion in a criminal case before the Seattle Municipal Court. It is virtually unheard of that the City Attorney would bring on outside counsel to argue a criminal motion which is the essential purview of the Criminal Division. The lead lawyer hired for the case – Jeff Coopersmith of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP – also happens to have hosted Pete Holmes for his campaign kickoff at the law firm in April of this year.
- In addition, the City Attorney has recently lost or settled high-cost cases with current or former Seattle police officers.
That includes a case in which three white officers were transferred by Chief O’Toole from the South Precinct to other assignments and won an unconscionable $2.8m jury verdict. http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/jury-finds-seattle-police-chief-retaliated-against-2-officers-in-overtime-dispute/
And the $100k settlement with Cynthia Whitlatch, the officer fired for her arrest of William Wingate for walking with a golf club. http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/crime/city-attorney-defends-settlement-payment-to-seattle-cop-fired-over-golf-club-arrest/
The incredible increase in City Attorney’s Office spending on outside counsel and claims raises significant questions. It's also a direct contradiction to Holmes' platform when he ran for office in 2009. One of his biggest campaign promises was to reduce the amount spent on outside counsel and often criticized former City Attorney Tom Carr for hiring outside attorneys at high rates.
An example of the hourly rate Holmes was so opposed to just 8 years ago? $275 to a firm called Stafford Frey Cooper. Holmes even did an interview in 2010 with the Seattle Times where he said that rate was too costly compared to the City Attorney's Office rate of $100 per hour. "It's a tough time budget-wise...we can pay four times the fee to Stafford Frey, and then wonder why we can't put officers on the street. There's a direct connection."
How much of the deficit is attributable to outside counsel spending? What is the City Attorney doing to bring those costs down? Why did the City Attorney hire $550/hour outside counsel in City v. Jalil in a criminal case when he knew the deficit the office is already running?