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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Police review board attorneys resign, citing law department dispute

Posted By on Tue, Sep 28, 2010 at 10:16 PM

At the first meeting of the city's newly reconstituted Citizens Police Review Board, executive director Beth Pittinger made a surprise announcement tonight: Board solicitors Hugh McGough and William Ward are resigning, effective October 18.

In a letter addressed to Pittinger and obtained by our very own Chris Young, Ward says their firm is stepping down because of a contractual dispute with the city's Law Department, which has frozen payment on their invoices. That would be the same Law Department, of course, that the review board has been battling in court over access to documents needed for an inquiry into G-20 security procedures. 

Let me make that a little clearer. The attorneys who have been taking on the city Law Department now say the Law Department is refusing to pay them.

In the two-page letter dated Sept. 17, Ward said the Law Department refused to pay the firm's legal bills unless it agreed to renegotiate terms of their contract -- even thought the contract was already in effect. According to the letter, the city began demanding changes to in April. And though Mayor Luke Ravenstahl signed the contract as written in January, the letter says, the firm has not been paid at all this year. It now claims to be owed $32,000. 

According to the letter, the Law Department originally insisted that the contract would be changed to include a provision "authoriz[ing] the Law Department to immediately and without notice terminate representation of the CPRB." In other words, the Law Department would be able to terminate the attorneys representing the people arguing the other side of the G-20 case

The letter says the Law Department dropped that demand, along with a requirement that Ward and McGough increase their professional liability insurance -- which covers the cost of any negligence or other claims made against a lawyer -- from $3 million to $20 million. As the letter points out, $20 million is the amount of the insurance policy the city took out to protect itself against civil-rights lawsuits filed as a result of the G-20. (City officials have previously claimed that the review board's inquiry might cause the city to forfeit that coverage. Presumably, this requirement would have "made up the difference.")

But ultimately, the letter says, "the impasse remains" because the Law Department "demands that the [contract] include new language to the effect that this firm would be liable for damages" for any board actions taken "based in whole or in part on legal advice provided by" the firm. Such a demand would apparently apply to any advice the firm had already given, a demand Ward said had "no reasonable basis.

"The changes sought by the Law Department are unprecedented," Ward also asserts, saying they "deviat[e] from this firm's prior contracts over a decade ... and from comparable solicitor contracts for other city entities." 

The letter pledged that until Oct. 18, the firm would continue to provide "vigorous representation" while helping to "assure a smooth transition" to a new lawyer. 

We will seek comment from the city Law Department tomorrow, and post their response here. But the timing of this dispute is significant. The city began demanding the right to change this contract in April; in June, city officials began an effort to replace most of the board members themselves. In both cases, the board has lost advisors with years of experience, having to replace them with newcomers in the middle of a critical lawsuit.

"This is all running parallel," Pittinger told Chris Young at tonight's review board meeting. "It just smells." 

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