State legal fees for Flint: $12M and growing

LANSING - The state has paid $12 million to outside attorneys for work related to the Flint drinking water crisis, with nearly 30% of that amount going to criminal and civil defense attorneys hired by Gov. Rick Snyder, according to the latest numbers compiled by the Free Press.

And the amount continues to climb as the lead poisoning of Flint's drinking water has proven to be a bonanza for Michigan's legal industry.

"It's a lot of money," but given the breadth and scope of the Flint issues, "I can see $10 million to $15 million being eaten up very quickly," said Jeffrey Swartz, an associate professor at Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School with experience in attorney fee litigation.

The state is still "on your way up the slope" in terms of mounting legal costs, said Swartz, a former senior trial counsel in commercial litigation and criminal defense attorney for a private law firm and county judge in Florida.

The approved value of outside legal contracts — not all of which has been spent — is at least $16.6 million.

Swartz said the Legislature may want to appoint a commission — perhaps composed of retired judges or judges not connected with the Flint issue — to review the appropriateness of all outside legal bills before they are approved for payment.

So far, Snyder's office has spent a combined $3.35 million for outside criminal and civil defense lawyers. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has spent $3.65 million, while the Department of Health and Human Services has spent $956,000 and the Treasury Department has spent $35,555, according to figures released to the Free Press this week by each office.

The other big outside attorney costs are for Royal Oak attorney Todd Flood, the special counsel Attorney General Bill Schuette hired to lead the Flint criminal investigation, and retired Michigan Court of Appeals Judge William Whitbeck, who is serving as Schuette's top legal adviser on the investigation. Their contracts are capped at $4.9 million and $284,000 respectively. So far, they've together spent about $3.7 million, Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said Wednesday.

The state has also paid $340,000 to reimburse the City of Flint for some civil and criminal legal defense costs it has incurred as a result of the water crisis, which a task force appointed by Snyder has said was mainly the result of mistakes made at the state level. Not included in the $12-million total are an additional $1.3 million in Flint legal costs that have not yet been reimbursed by the state.

Schuette, whose investigation is ongoing, has charged 13 current or former state and city officials, including five from the DEQ, three each from DHHS and the City of Flint, and two former emergency managers who ran the city and reported to the Treasury Department. Nobody from Snyder's office has been charged.

The $12-million figure also doesn't include the hundreds of thousands of dollars state departments have paid Schuette's office for work that attorneys in his office has done defending departments in civil lawsuits related to the Flint crisis. So far, the DEQ has paid the AG's office close to $372,000 for those services, and the Treasury Department has paid the AG another $50,000, officials said. A cost figure from the DHHS was not available.

On the criminal defense side, attorneys retained by state and city defendants charged by Schuette now include many of the best-known and highly regarded criminal defense attorneys in Michigan — such as Steve Fishman, Mark Kriger, Harold Gurewitz, and Robert Morrison. All of those attorneys, most commonly seen defending clients in federal court in Detroit, are becoming more familiar with the courtrooms in Flint.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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