Corbett administration's legal bills rising

Gov. Corbett's aides say the overall costs have decreased.
Gov. Corbett's aides say the overall costs have decreased.
Posted: November 04, 2013

HARRISBURG Last week, Gov. Corbett came under fire for spending nearly $3.5 million on law firms as part of his quest to privatize the Pennsylvania Lottery.

That was only one of a handful of high-profile cases pursued by the administration that have ended up costing millions of dollars in legal bills. The others include defending a lawsuit seeking to overturn the state's oft-criticized voter ID requirement, which the governor signed into law last year; and Corbett's unsuccessful challenge to the NCAA's sanctions against Pennsylvania State University for its handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.

In all, records show, the administration has spent at least $6.4 million since 2012 on outside law firms, either defending or pushing its agenda in those and three other controversial matters.

And the total grows by the month.

Administration officials defend the cost and note that since Corbett took office in January 2011 overall spending on outside counsel has decreased two years in a row as have expenses for firms that get the most state work.

Whenever possible, cases are handled in-house, they said, adding that they continue to develop in-house abilities as the administration faces legal challenges.

Even with hundreds of lawyers working in the Attorney General's Office and other agencies, every administration spends tens of millions of dollars a year on outside attorneys to advise or defend state employees or agencies on the day-to-day running of the state government.

During his eight-year tenure, former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell was criticized for his administration's contracts to law firms - many of them from Philadelphia - and in particular, for work awarded to his former law firm, Ballard Spahr.

Spending on outside counsel under Corbett has stood out because much of it has been to defend some of his highest-profile policies - or attempts at making policy.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat who last week said his office would review all legal and consulting bills related to lottery privatization, said in an interview that though there are times outside counsel is warranted, he is concerned that "it's happening over and over again."

"If we truly don't have the expertise," said DePasquale, "then maybe we need to address who we hire as lawyers."

Lottery on the list

Lottery privatization remains on Corbett's wish list, though its chances of becoming legislative reality appear to be fading. The governor's push to privatize the lottery's management has been blocked by Attorney General Kathleen Kane, whose office reviews all state contracts and who maintains that parts of the governor's plan violate the state constitution.

Yet Corbett has not given up. Last week, he was criticized by DePasquale and state Treasurer Rob McCord for money spent on consulting and legal fees in pushing the privatization effort. McCord, a Democrat, is seeking to challenge Corbett in next year's governor's race.

According to the contracts, the governor has spent $2.36 million on legal consultant DLA Piper, and just recently authorized nearly an additional $1 million to be paid to the firm. The firm's attorneys fees range from $350 per hour, for associates, to $695 an hour for partners.

Separately, the administration has also paid Blank Rome $116,000 to assist with lottery privatization efforts, and authorized spending up to $200,000 on the firm through the end of the year.

Controversial voter ID

To defend Pennsylvania's voter ID law, the administration turned to both the Attorney General's Office, as well as Philadelphia's Drinker Biddle, which has been paid just shy of $1 million since last year. Attorneys fees range from $325 to $495 per hour, according to the contract.

The GOP-controlled legislature passed the law last year, and Corbett signed it amid criticism that it would disenfranchise minorities, senior citizens, and the poor.

So far, there have been two trials in Commonwealth Court. Whatever the outcome, it is widely expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

NCAA overreach?

In January, Corbett filed a federal antitrust suit against the NCAA for what he called its "overreaching and unlawful sanctions" placed on Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. The NCAA had imposed a $60 million fine for child-abuse prevention, issued a four-year bowl game ban, stripped the school of football scholarships, and other penalties.

At the time, the governor was criticized for wading into legally risky territory. Others openly questioned why the state was devoting taxpayer resources to the effort.

As of last month, the administration had paid Cozen O'Connor $382,852.37 for assistance on the suit, and the contract with the firm authorizes spending up to $650,000 through this year, with attorney pay ranging from $355 to $585 per hour. Administration officials could not say whether there are still invoices pending.

A federal judge dismissed the case over the summer.

Chester Upland schools

In January of last year, in the wake of steep cuts Corbett made to public schools in his first year in office, the near-bankrupt Chester-Upland school district in Delaware County, together with a group of district parents, sued the administration for failing to provide adequate state funding. The district filed a similar suit in state court.

The administration hired the Philadelphia law firm of Saul Ewing, paying its lawyers between $230 and $305 an hour, according to a copy of the contract. The contract started out at $100,000, but was increased over the course of litigation. The cases were settled later that year, with the state agreeing to pay off millions in debts the district owed, as well as send the district extra aid.

The law firm, whose former chairman, Steve Aichele, was Corbett's general counsel and later chief of staff that year, has received $1.39 million in fees for its work on those suits, according to the administration.

Gay-marriage ban

Over the summer, a group of 10 plaintiffs filed a federal suit, alleging that their civil rights were violated by Pennsylvania's ban on gay marriage.

Typically, the attorney general represents the state in cases involving a state constitutional challenge. But Kane, the attorney general, announced she would not do so following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the Defense of Marriage Act.

In that respect, the administration's hand was forced: Corbett, who does not support same-sex marriage, hired Chester County lawyer William H. Lamb in July to represent the commonwealth.

Administration officials said the contract with Lamb has yet to be executed, and could not provide a copy. But Lamb will be paid $400 an hour for his legal counsel work, while others in his firm, Lamb McErlane, will receive $325 an hour for their services.

State records do not yet show any payments to Lamb on the gay-marriage case. There has been only one court proceeding. The case is expected to unfold over months, if not years.


BY THE NUMBERS

$6.4 million - Spent on outside law firms since 2012

$3.5 million - To privatize the Pennsylvania Lottery

Almost $1 million - On the voter ID law


acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934

@AngelasInk

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