Clay County taxpayers paid millions to cover legal bills under previous commission

·6 min read

In April 2020, law firm Husch Blackwell had six different attorneys billing Clay County for tasks that legal invoices simply described as “county counselor work.”

All those lawyers, regardless of their status as partners or associates, each billed the county $365 an hour for a combined total of 120 hours that month. Some of the time they billed was for attorneys to make the trip from Husch Blackwell’s Jefferson City office to Liberty and back to attend Clay County Commission meetings.

The total bill to Clay County taxpayers: $43,800 for that month alone.

Taxpayers paid Husch Blackwell $2,268,024 from 2018 to 2020, years in which the then-Clay County Commission replaced its full-time staff attorney with a large law firm that bills its time by the hour. The average annual amount Husch Blackwell was paid by Clay County for those three years works out to $756,008.

By comparison, Kansas City spent $60,876 last fiscal year on outside law firms, according to a city spokesman.

The job of county counselor in Clay County is now done by a single attorney, Kevin Graham, who is on the county payroll for $125,000 a year.

Graham was hired by the Clay County Commission at the beginning of the year after a new commission was sworn into office. Commissioners Jon Carpenter and Megan Thompson replaced Gene Owen and Luann Ridgeway, who both decided not to run for another term in office. The two of them formed a consistent voting bloc on the three-member commission and guided the decisions to hire outside lawyers.

Former Clay County commissioners Gene Owen and Luann Ridgeway
Former Clay County commissioners Gene Owen and Luann Ridgeway

Carpenter and Thompson, along with presiding commissioner Jerry Nolte, hired Graham to rein in the county’s spending on outside law firms.

Records obtained by The Star show that Clay County taxpayers paid outside law firms $3,346,368 from 2017 to 2020.

“I think ending the legal engagements by the previous commission was one of the best decisions we made,” Thompson said. “Every tax dollar we were wasting on high-priced lawyers is a dollar we can use for essential services.”

County officials say the current arrangement — depending primarily on an in-house counselor as opposed to outside law firms — is a better deal for taxpayers.

“Where we are right now, absolutely we are seeing big savings,” said Clay County Auditor Victor Hurlbert, who last year issued a report critical of the county’s use of law firms.

Attorneys for Husch Blackwell and Spencer Fane, another firm that did county business, did not respond to messages seeking comment. Nor did Ridgeway nor Owen.

The county continues to use outside law firms for certain matters, but less so compared to the previous commission. Also, most of the high-profile disputes involving Clay County that landed in courtrooms and newspaper headlines in recent years have been resolved since the new commission took office at the beginning of the year.

I don’t think we have anything pending that are not typical claims against the county that are not covered by our insurance,” Graham said.

Some of that spending on outside law firms by the previous commission was for routine matters. Others were to handle lawsuits on Clay County’s behalf. The outcome of several of those lawsuits were not successful for Clay County.

Fighting records, an audit

Spencer Fane was hired by the previous Clay County Commission to review and respond to requests by the public for government documents.

That’s a responsibility most local governments handle internally. In Clay County’s case, that job previously belonged to the county clerk.

The commission stripped the clerk, who was Thompson at the time, of her oversight of public records requests and left it primarily in the hands of Spencer Fane’s lawyers.

Questions arose about whether Spencer Fane reduced the public’s access to Clay County documents and records.

A Star reporter in 2019 requested copies of Spencer Fane’s legal invoices. Judges in Kansas and Missouri have previously ruled that legal invoices to government bodies are public records.

A Spencer Fane attorney said it would cost the reporter $4,200 to review the firm’s legal invoices and judge whether redactions were warranted.

The Star sued Clay County, alleging violations of the Missouri Sunshine Law, after obtaining copies of the invoices from a whistleblower.

Spencer Fane represented Clay County in that lawsuit. The firm billed taxpayers more than $100,000 to defend the case, which it lost when a circuit court judge sided with The Star and found the county had violated the Sunshine Law.

Spencer Fane also represented Clay County in its effort to limit an examination of the county by the Missouri auditor.

The auditor in 2018 initiated an audit of the county after receiving a petition with more than 9,000 signatures of residents requesting the inspection. Critics of Clay County’s government suspected waste and fraud by the previous commission.

Clay County’s efforts through Spencer Fane to limit the audit, keep certain records off limits from auditors and keep top officials from testifying were unsuccessful.

The new Clay County Commission has cleared the way for the Missouri auditor’s office to complete its work. The results of that audit are pending.

Thompson said auditors have been at the old Clay County administration building.

“We’ve provided them with documents,” she said. “They’re getting everything they need.”

Internal strife

Husch Blackwell was asked to represent the Clay County Commission in another legal dispute, this time with one of its own departments.

Former Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo sued the commission in 2019 when he saw his department’s budget get cut two years in a row, leaving it unable to pay vendors supplying food and healthcare to jail inmates.

Vescovo believed the cuts were the result of a political vendetta by Ridgeway and Owen for having investigated a top county administrator for tampering with public records.

A judge sided with Vescovo with an order that called the commission’s behavior “troubling” and “indefensible.” The judge ordered the commission to allocate nearly $1 million to restore the budget cuts.

Seigfried Bingham, the law firm representing Vescovo at the county’s expense, incurred about $200,000 in legal fees to handle the case. Another firm, Kuhlman Reddoch & Sullivan, was paid $134,283 by taxpayers to represent presiding commissioner Nolte because he disagreed with the position taken by his colleagues.

Loose ends

Clay County appealed its loss to The Star to the Missouri Court of Appeals. Before the appeal was decided, the new commission was sworn in and decided to settle the issue.

That settlement resulted in The Star receiving four years of legal bills to the county under the prior commission.

Other legal issues involving the county have been settled recently, too.

One was a lawsuit that Clay County filed against its outside auditor, RSM US. The previous commission sued RSM when the firm did not complete its 2018 audit for the county. RSM replied that Clay County didn’t provide it with the information it needed to complete the audit.

Court records show that case was dismissed on April 13. A settlement agreement obtained by The Star through a records request shows that RSM US paid Clay County $45,000 with neither side admitting wrongdoing.

Another recent settlement was a lawsuit filed by Zillow, the online property data aggregator, that in 2020 accused Clay County of Sunshine Law violations. Its lawsuit said Clay County refused to release public property records unless Zillow agreed to licensing terms like not selling or sharing data unless it got permission from the county first.

That case settled earlier this year.