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Do commissioners really oppose Paxton prosecutor fees?

By   /   May 5, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 8 of 17 in the series The Problematic Paxton Prosecution
4ourth Wall Media

LAWYER FEES: The Collin County Commissioners Court has been ordered to pay for a high-dollar special prosecution, against its wishes.

An attorney who’s been trying to stop the payment of six-figure fees to the special prosecutors pursuing Attorney General Ken Paxton is calling out the Collin County Commissioners Court, and in particular, Judge Keith Self.

Attorney Eddie Greim, who is representing taxpayer Jeff Blackard in litigation meant to cap those fees, sent a letter to the commissioners Wednesday proposing a plan to pursue a court challenge.

Greim called out Self by name because Self has voted to pay those fees, despite saying that “the amounts being paid to the special prosecutors gall me.”

The reason Self and others have found the fees galling is that state law holds that special prosecutors “shall receive compensation” in the “same amount and manner” as a court-appointed lawyer defending anyone. That’s not much in Collin County: $1,000 for pretrial work, $1,000 a day for trial, with a possible $1,000 bump if a judge deems it appropriate.

The question is whether courts have the authority to invoke an exception to those rules in “unusual circumstances,” and if so, when.

Judge George Gallagher, who is overseeing the case, has ordered the county to pay $337,664 — so far — in legal fees for the special prosecutors, for another special investigation he commissioned that found nothing, and for attorneys to defend the special prosecutors in litigation over their fees, as well as file lawsuits over public records rulings involving the Dallas Morning News and Watchdog.org.

“We are, in effect, writing a blank check, and do not have any control whatsoever over these unreasonable costs,” Commissioner Susan Fletcher told her supporters after a recent meeting.

Greim’s challenges have thus far been rejected by the courts, so now “only two avenues remain for protecting the interests of Collin County taxpayers,” he wrote. One is the continued appeal of a lawsuit filed in December, and the other is “to have Collin County Commissioners enforce local judges’ compliance with the Texas Fair Defense Act—a right which the Commissioners now recognize they may assert.”

Self says that the commissioners have no authority to defy a court order, and that if they want to challenge the payments, “then we would do so in a court of law, not by voting against paying the invoices determined to be reasonable by the presiding judge. Absent our challenge in a court of law, the fees are ‘carrying with them a presumption of necessity and reasonableness.’ Period.”

On his blog, Self cites a state attorney general opinion saying that judges have discretion to set fees, but the opinion dates from 1987, long before Texas passed the Fair Defense Act in 2001, which is the law at issue in the case.

“No court has yet reached the merits of the core legal issue: whether the Fair Defense Act does in fact allow judges to set their own rates, case by case, under a catch-all exception for ‘special circumstances,’” Greim wrote. “This novel view of the statute allows serious crimes and capital cases to be defended for only a few thousand dollars, while high-profile prosecutions of major political figures can cost millions.”

RELATED: Judge orders $255,000 payday for Paxton prosecutors

Since Self and Greim agree, apparently, that a court ought to decide the issue, Greim has proposed an approach. Basically, he’s asking the commissioners to get Gallagher’s permission not to pay the invoices for 14 days, so that Greim and his client can have a chance to challenge the next one. Once the bill is paid, there’s no legal issue to dispute.

Greim requested a response by Friday to prepare an agreement in time for the Commissioners Court meeting on Monday.

Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.

Part of 17 in the series The Problematic Paxton Prosecution

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Jon Cassidy was a former Houston-based reporter for Watchdog.org.