By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Gov. Scott Walker has agreed to pay a private law firm up to $500,000 for legal services regarding his controversial budget repair bill curbing public employees’ collective bargaining rights, a spokesman for the governor confirmed.
Walker signed a special counsel contract with the Madison office of Michael Best & Friedrich on Feb. 7, four days before unveiling the bill, public records show. The contract authorized payment at the unusually high rate of up to $300 an hour, to a total of $100,000.
Additional tasks, including two recent federal lawsuits challenging the bill, have since been assigned under the contract. Cullen Werwie, spokesman for the Republican governor, said the contract was amended a few days ago and “the maximum was adjusted to $500,000.”
Signing the contract for Michael Best & Friedrich was attorney Raymond Taffora, a month after he left his job with the state attorney general’s office, which usually represents the state on legal challenges.
Werwie said the firm was hired “at the request of the attorney general’s office” to review the budget-repair bill and provide other legal services the office could not.
Correspondence shows the governor on Feb. 4 requested legal assistance from the attorney general’s office in anticipation of litigation on the bill. The office declined, citing a lack of sufficient non-union staff with the necessary expertise. It recommended that the governor appoint special counsel.
On two later occasions, records show, the attorney general’s office itself asked for special counsel to assist in litigation in state court related to the bill. Assistant Attorney General Kevin Potter said he believes these duties were performed by Michael Best & Friedrich under the existing contract.
State law allows the governor to appoint special counsel to assist the attorney general’s office or act in its stead in cases in which the office has a conflict or disagreement. It requires these contracts to be filed with the secretary of state, but does not set a timeline. The governor’s contract with Michael Best & Friedrich was received June 23, more than four months after it was signed.
Susan Crawford, who as chief legal counsel to former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in 2009 and 2010 was involved in decisions to hire outside attorneys, is perplexed by the hiring.
“It’s hard to understand why they needed to bring in outside attorneys at $300 an hour,” she said, noting that Department of Justice attorneys ultimately did represent the state on litigation stemming from the budget repair bill. Crawford now works for the Madison law firm of Cullen Weston Pines & Bach, which did some outside legal work under Doyle.
Taffora was a deputy attorney general under Republican J.B. Van Hollen for four years, earning about $65 an hour. He previously worked at Michael Best & Friedrich and was chief legal counsel for Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Taffora did not return phone messages.
The governor’s office has not yet provided invoices in response to a July 11 public records request, but Nate Ristow, the governor’s assistant legal counsel, put the total billed to date at $96,215.
In a separate special counsel contract, Walker hired Madison attorney Todd Palmer for “professional legal services relating to environmental counseling for the state.” The rate was set at $275 an hour, up to a maximum of $100,000.
Palmer was hired in February after the attorney general’s office declined a request from the state Department of Administration to provide representation or assistance in responding to a federal Environmental Protection Agency Clean Air Act “information request regarding state heating plants.”
In a letter dated Jan. 28, Potter noted that his office did not feel it was appropriate to get involved, in part because “there is no pending action related to the request.” The letter suggested that DOA could ask the governor to hire outside counsel.
Crawford noted that in the past, “the DOA’s in-house attorneys provided the legal work for regulatory compliance of the state heating plants.”
Palmer, a registered lobbyist whose online resume notes his work with “numerous industries, including petroleum refineries, automobile manufacturers, electric utilities, mining companies” and others, declined comment.
“I don’t discuss the nature of my representation of clients,” Palmer said. “I refer you to the client” — the governor’s office.
Werwie said Palmer was hired at the request of the attorney general’s office “because of his exemplary review from his peers.”
The agreement, which runs through Aug. 15, was redrafted in May after Palmer switched law firms — from Dewitt Ross & Stevens to Michael Best & Friedrich. Ristow said $57,997 has been billed under the first contract but none yet on the later version.
Since taking office, Walker has entered at least six special counsel agreements for a total maximum of $740,000. Three involve lawsuits, at hourly rates of $150 and $175.
A review of the 23 special counsel contracts entered into by Doyle during his last two years in office shows special counsel contracts were promptly filed and routinely stated why the attorney general was not involved. Reasons cited included conflict of interest, lack of legal expertise or because the attorney general did not share the governor’s position.
The contracts signed by Walker provide no explanations. Said Crawford, “You can’t tell from the contract why it was necessary.”
Crawford also questioned the hourly rates of $275 and $300 agreed to by Walker.
“Particularly in a tight budget situation, it’s hard to see why the governor is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal work that state employees could be performing at a fraction of the cost,” Crawford said.
The contracts signed by Doyle during his last two years in office show no hourly rate higher than $200, with $175 being the norm. In some cases, the rate is not specified, or the work done for a flat fee. Several cases were handled pro bono, except for expenses.
“We would try to negotiate the best rate possible since we’re spending the taxpayers’ funds,” Crawford said.
Werwie defended the higher fees, saying Walker’s office has sometimes signed special counsel contracts for lower amounts and that “ones for more than that were required because a specialty attorney was needed to handle the complex nature of the issues.”
Bill Lueders can be reached at email@example.com.
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