Two Denver city contracts issued to law firms with close ties to Denver City Attorney Scott Martinez raise questions about timing, billing and whether they were bid.
Martinez’s office hired Faegre Baker Daniels and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in June 2014 to handle a lawsuit by Jamal Hunter, who said he was assaulted by fellow Denver jail inmates with the knowledge and encouragement of a deputy.
Martinez has written a law article with two of the Faegre attorneys on the contract, and the primary attorney at Brownstein on that contract, Doug Friednash, was Martinez’s boss as city attorney before leaving the city to join the law firm in January 2014.
Both contracts paid an hourly rate of more than $400, with two Brownstein attorneys receiving $425 and five Faegre lawyers billing at $450 an hour.
Colorado Ethics Watch executive director Luis Toro questioned why the work wasn’t handled by city attorney staff or at least by a firm charging a lower hourly fee.
“What I’m focusing on is the city spending on big national law firms for outside contracts,” he said, noting he used to be a partner in a smaller law firm that charged considerably less. “They should be handling this in-house or at least going to a firm that charges less than $450 an hour.”
Along with the cost to taxpayers, details about the contracts raise significant questions.
Brownstein started June 1, 2014, but the contract was only signed and approved Sept. 30, 2014. The Faegre contract had work starting June 26, 2014, but wasn’t approved until Dec. 1, 2014, according to the copies of the contracts filed in the city clerk’s office.
The city settled with Hunter for $3.25 million on July 25, 2014, less than two months after work started. But Faegre continued to bill the city months after the settlement, including a $1,721 bill dated April 7, 2015, and a $7,573 bill on Feb. 25, 2015, billing statements show.
Kathleen Mackenzie, spokeswoman for the Denver Auditor’s office, said she wasn’t sure how common it is to have contractors start work before the contract is finalized by the mayor, clerk and auditor or bill after a settlement, but she believes it has happened previously. She declined to discuss the specifics of the Brownstein and Faegre contracts because they were handled by the previous administration.
“We will keep an eye on it in the future,” she promised.
Martinez refused multiple requests for an interview about the contracts, including an in-person attempt by Watchdog.org after the office’s Christmas party in mid-December. He sent an email saying the contracts were properly issued to the top law firms.
“Our office has multiple contracts with law firms (beyond just the two cited in your email and in previous coverage) that were subject to a competitive selection process at similar rates,” he wrote in an email response to a request for an interview. “These contracts go before City Council for approval.”
In November, city attorney’s administration director Nikki Holmlund, in an email to Watchdog.org, also indicated the contracts went through a competitive process.
“The Faegre and Brownstein contracts were signed as part of the City’s standard RFP process,” she wrote.
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But it’s not clear whether there was a competitive process as the attorney’s office and purchasing department did not provide Request For Proposals documents or grading of various law firms for the 2014 contracts despite repeated requests by Watchdog.org. They provided a 2012 request for qualifications for a Brownstein contract, but no evaluation documentation.
A contract database notes the Faegre contract was not bid and provides the unclear justification of “specific need.” The database notes the Brownstein contract was bid, saying the city’s “litigation (department) has notes.”
The city also declined to release the detailed billing statements for the 2014 Faegre and Brownstein contracts, citing privileged information exemption to state law. The city provided only the cover sheets that list the total amount for the bill, but not the work the firms performed for taxpayers.
That is key information for taxpayers because Faegre billed the maximum allowed under the contract — $470,000 — and $70,000 under a contract extension for just 35 days of work, the billing cover sheets show.
The contract names five Faegre attorneys who each made $450 an hour under the contract. Dividing that hourly rate means all five attorneys would have worked approximately 40 hours a week for each of the six weeks of the billing period solely on the Hunter case.
Toro said that’s a lot of time for one client, but it’s possible because attorneys often work substantially more than eight hours a day.
Toro said the city should have provided the detailed billing statements and redacted specific parts if they provided insight to strategy or legal advice.
“That sounds questionable,” he said of the open records denial. “What lawyers are working on and for how long should be public.”
Friednash has since left Brownstein to work as Gov. John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff. A representative of the law firm called to say staff members do not discuss client matters even after Watchdog.org reminded her Brownstein’s clients were actually Denver taxpayers who paid for the work.
Faegre representatives did not respond to a call and email seeking comment.