Montgomery County accumulated excessive legal bills to pursue a lawsuit against the designers and builders of the long-delayed Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center in Silver Spring. When all these payments are added together, Montgomery County, in a case that never went to trial, will have paid more than $18 million and will have received a settlement only $6.7 million higher. Indeed, not all invoices have been tallied, so the county’s cost will be even higher.
I served on the Upcounty Citizens Advisory Board in Montgomery County. For more than 40 years, I litigated energy issues as a federal government lawyer. When I was on the advisory board, I often asked county officials why they immediately hired outside counsel every time a potential litigation situation arose. I was told that they believed they got better representation from outside firms than from government lawyers.
That is insulting to the thousands of federal, state and local government attorneys who practice throughout this country. For the final 19 years of my career, I worked with 90 people in an office that combined lawyers and expert witnesses. Our multiparty energy litigation dealt with sums of money many times in excess of the transit center claims. Our administrative trials ran up to five months. At the time I retired, no one in our office, including the highest-level managers, earned more than $85 per hour. Our younger attorneys and witnesses earned considerably less than that.
In sharp contrast, the Saul Ewing firm billed $525 per hour for partners and $200 per hour for paralegals. The notion that these attorneys were vastly superior to government lawyers is belied by the fact that the judge threw out the county’s allegations of fraud, its demand for punitive damages and its demand for court costs.
All criminal cases in Montgomery County are professionally litigated through the state’s attorney’s office. The county’s website further identifies more than 45 lawyers in a separate division who work on civil matters.
When the transit center litigation was announced and the outside firm hired, it was stated that the law firm would work under the direction of the lead attorney in the civil division. Many of the attorneys in this division have impressive credentials. Were none capable of representing the county in this litigation or working with the law firm to hold down costs? It is absurd to pay $6.5 million for outside counsel for a case that didn’t even go to trial.
Similarly, while some outside experts may be necessary, shouldn’t administrators in Montgomery County, who supposedly were overseeing the contracts to build the transit center, have been capable of drafting testimony?
It is equally sad to see that none of the Democratic candidates for county executive appear to have any problem with these excessive payments. I want a county executive who will periodically audit all county services.