Puerto Rico has discovered that bankruptcy is expensive.
Lawyers asked a U.S. District Court overseeing the commonwealth’s bankruptcy case to approve $75 million in funds for legal and consulting fees and another $2 million in expenses. And that covers May 3 through Sept. 30, the first five months of the case. Another five months have passed since then.
One of the biggest bills came from firms working for the federal oversight board — charged by Congress with monitoring and imposing fiscal discipline on Puerto Rico.
Judge Laura Taylor Swain, the federal judge overseeing the bankruptcy case, approved less than $50 million of the charges and is still reviewing the rest. But she warned the lawyers that the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion in debt was in its “infant” stages. Swain said the people of Puerto Rico could not afford to spend “billions of dollars” on fees and added that the lawyers should come up with ways to keep legal costs under control.
A report by a fee examiner for the court sharply criticized the law firms and their clients for needlessly duplicating tasks.
Five firms accounted for about two-thirds of the requested fees. They include the oversight board’s lawyers from the firm of Proskauer Rose, which filed for $15.9 million. O’Melveny & Myers filed for more than $16 million; Paul Hastings for $9.3 million; Willkie Farr & Gallagher for $4.7 million; and Greenberg Traurig for $3.4 million.
The consulting firm McKinsey & Co., working for the federal oversight board, asked for $5.1 million and is seeking $2 million a month going forward.
“We are all very conscious of how much this process is costing Puerto Rico’s taxpayers,” said Natalie Jaresko, executive director of the oversight board created by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act. In an email she said: “It is very expensive for this island and we are all working to reduce what we can, but this is a very complex process with dozens of lawsuits [and] multiple sets of interests.”
Jaresko said the costs “seem comparable to other large, complex debt restructurings and bankruptcies.” But, she added, “the best way to assure these costs are as low as possible is to move as quickly as possible to complete the debt restructuring after fiscal plans are certified.”
The fee examiner in the case, Brady Williamson, and its lawyers Katherine Stadler of Godfrey & Kahn and Eyck O. Lugo of San Juan, said that “many firms are sending too many professionals to attend — by almost any standard — with significant hourly and travel expenses.” The examiner’s report said that “it is unreasonable, whether the clients or the professionals make the staffing decisions, to expect compensation for 12 attorneys from a single firm to attend an omnibus hearing at which only one or two were expected to speak.”
The fee examiner reviewed more than 100,000 time and expense entries. The examiner said the average hourly rates varied from about $245 an hour for firms based in Puerto Rico to $775 an hour to firms in New York. The highest hourly rate was $1,425. The examiner said law firms that were not offering discounts already should do so.
The examiner criticized “duplication of effort” and the number of professionals attending the proceedings. While some creditors have retained more than one law firm or financial adviser, the examiner said that “the justification for multiple professionals in some instances, though, is not yet apparent.”
It also said that it had identified “several six-figure vendor charges for computer research, which seem challenging to justify.” The examiner added that “while electronic research can save time and money, many sources are available at no cost, and some discipline is warranted.”
Critics of the federal oversight board used the fee examiner’s report to lament the legal fees. “Not only do the people of Puerto Rico have to suffer the indignity of an unelected control board dictating the future of their economy from New York, they’re also paying tens of millions for a flock of white-shoe lawyers to descend on San Juan and squabble about the island’s bankruptcy,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “Imagine if $77 million was spent on investing in the things Puerto Ricans urgently need — like public schools, hospitals and a new electricity grid.”
The oversight board has sought reductions in the number of people working for the commonwealth. Some economists have said that with the drop in population, the number of teachers could be reduced.
As of Wednesday, Swain’s court is weighing 40 applications for professional compensation from 30 financial firms and law firms, the examiner’s report said.
The lawyers represent a wide variety of creditors and debtors, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the government of Puerto Rico, groups of hedge funds, the island’s pensioners. O’Melveny & Myers is coordinating the commonwealth’s team.
The fee examiner said it had met with the oversight board’s staff, including its counsel, to talk about costs. “The oversight board has been receptive to these discussions,” the examiner said.