Billing information from new county attorney remains secret
The Grady County Commission and the new county attorney, Jennifer Herzog, continue to keep secret the details of invoices for legal services from Herzog’s firm, Hall Booth Smith, and is withholding the issuance of the billing for the second quarter of 2018.
However, Georgia Attorney General Christopher M. Carr’s office has weighed in on the matter at the request of The Cairo Messenger.
In a letter dated July 18, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo demanded that Herzog respond within 10 business days of July 18 with an explanation of why the county believes that every description of the Hall Booth Smith invoice should be kept from being made public.
The assistant attorney general noted that minutes from commission meetings on Jan. 16, 22, Feb. 6, 20 and March 6 indicate Herzog attended those meetings and at a minimum the “description of services” on the Hall Booth Smith invoices should contain a statement about her attendance at the public meeting.
After receiving a copy of the assistant attorney general’s letter last Wednesday, The Messenger made an open records request to the county for a copy of the first quarter bill without redaction and a copy of the Hall Booth Smith invoices for the second quarter.
Late Tuesday, Grady County Clerk Carrie Croy informed the newspaper that Hall Booth Smith “will not issue another invoice until your complaint with the Attorney General is resolved, unless otherwise requested by the Board.”
Croy also did not produce a copy of the first quarter billing without redaction as requested.
The county received its first bill from its new legal representatives in May and for the first three months of 2018 the cost was $42,836.47, compared to approximately $50,000 paid to former county attorney Kevin S. Cauley for the entire 12 months of 2017.
The copy of the first quarter’s billing provided to The Messenger had every single “description of services” redacted.
Herzog cited OCGA 50-18-72(a)(41) and (a)(42) as the statutory authority to redact those entries.
David E. Hudson, general counsel for the Georgia Press Association, reviewed the matter and concluded, “In my view there should be much more disclosed than her attendance at the meetings.”
Herzog has previously told the county commission that it could waive the attorney-client privilege and release the invoices from her law firm without redaction, but the board has not taken action to release the public records even when requested by The Messenger.
Grady County Commissioners concerned about the county’s cost for legal representation solicited a Request for Qualifications for legal services in November 2017 and ultimately voted 3-2 on Dec. 29, 2017 not to reappoint Cauley and then hired Hall Booth Smith on the recommendation of Grady County Commission Chairman Ray Prince, Grady County Clerk Carrie Croy and former county administrator Carlos Tobar. Chairman Prince, Commissioner June Knight and Commissioner LaFaye Copeland voted to make the change with Vice Chairman T.D. David and Commissioner Keith Moye voting to reappoint Cauley.
Without the public being able to inspect the bill, it is impossible to determine what the actual cost to taxpayers is to cover Herzog’s travel time from her Tifton office to meetings and back.
Herzog has said that during her drive to and from Cairo she makes calls regarding county work. If she does not have any calls to make the fees charged are strictly for travel.
Commissioners have not publicly discussed how future bills would be paid, but according to county records, the 2018 budget for county attorney, which was $16,000, has been spent. To cover the remainder of the first quarter Hall Booth invoices, the county pulled $21,836.47 from the professional services line-item of the budget. Another $5,000 was taken out of attorneys fees, according to Grady County Accounting Manager Donna Johnson.
During the discussion on Dec. 29, 2017, when the vote to hire Hall Booth was cast, county commissioners said a primary reason to hire the firm was because it offered attorneys in various specialties of law the county may need and would not have to pay other attorneys.
This has not been proven to be true, thus far. The county commission has retained the services of attorney Laura Benz to handle compliance issues regarding Tired Creek Lake; attorney Charles Ferenchick to work on right-of-way acquisition for a Community Development Block Grant project; and attorney Raleigh Rollins to represent the county in a pending lawsuit. In addition to those three attorneys, the county has hired attorneys Rob Howell, Laura Benz and Kevin Cauley to represent the county in a collection action regarding Tired Creek Lake mitigation construction. In May, the board also hired Conley-Griggs-Partin and the Studstill Firm to represent the county in opioid litigation. The attorneys in both the collection action and the opioid lawsuit will be paid on contingency.
In addition to the $42,836.47 paid to Hall Booth in May, between Jan. 1, 2018 and March 31, 2018, the county paid Raleigh Rollins $6,699.00; Laura Benz $12,124.00; and Charles Ferenchick $6,610.82.
Based on its agreement with the county, Hall Booth bills at a rate of $225 per hour for senior partners, $195 per hour for junior partners and $175 per hour for associates. Herzog does the bulk of the county’s work and she is a junior partner.
Last fall, Cauley, who had served as the county attorney since 2002, bid his services at $175 per hour and $145 per hour for his associate Charles Ferenchick. A significant portion of the approximately $50,000 paid to Cauley in 2017 was roughly $15,000 the county paid him for work on acquiring 40 tracts of right-of-way, which was the largest right-of-way project the county had undertaken in his tenure as county attorney.