Livingston Parish government is spending five times more on its legal adviser than in previous years, after the fee structure for the position changed from salary to hourly in 2012.
Overall, the parish’s legal expenses — including both the parish legal adviser and outside counsel on special cases — rose 26 percent from 2011 to 2012, and are on track to potentially exceed what was budgeted for 2013, according to figures provided by the parish’s finance director.
Parish officials said the numbers are troubling, and the Parish Council’s Finance Committee plans to discuss the rising costs at its meeting Thursday.
The parish’s legal adviser, Hammond attorney Christopher Moody, has billed the parish $364,000 during the past 16 months for work on some two dozen lawsuits and an equal number of complex legal issues, attendance at parish government meetings, discussions with parish officials and other legal work, parish records show.
Previous legal adviser Blayne Honeycutt, of Denham Springs, was paid about $42,000 per year for roughly the same services, according to figures provided by Finance Director Jennifer Meyers.
The difference is largely due to a change in the fee structure: Moody is paid hourly for most of his work, while Honeycutt was on salary.
Both were appointed to the position by 21st Judicial District Attorney Scott Perrilloux.
Under the Livingston Parish Home Rule Charter, the district attorney is designated as legal adviser for all branches and departments of parish government. In practice, however, the District Attorney’s Office generally has appointed someone to serve in that capacity, Perrilloux said.
Moody was appointed in early 2012 following a round of contentious parish elections and a request from parish officials for an outsider who was not connected with either of Livingston Parish’s political factions.
“I got a call from Scott asking if I was interested,” Moody said. “I told him that I was, but I would have to be compensated for my time.”
Moody originally asked for a billing rate of $250 per hour, but Perrilloux negotiated him down to $175 per hour plus out-of-pocket expenses, Moody said.
Moody’s fees dropped again in August 2012, after some council members expressed concern about the costs, he said. The new agreement included a $4,000 flat fee per month for day-to-day advising and simple legal issues, plus $175 per hour for work on more complex matters.
Moody billed a total of $248,568.20 for 2012, but the legal adviser is not the only source of legal expenses for the parish.
The parish also pays for outside counsel to handle special cases, such as Federal Emergency Management Agency appeals for Hurricane Gustav-related debris cleanup costs. That case, handled by attorney Shelby Easterly, has cost nearly $400,000 during the past three years.
Meyers, the finance director, said the parish budgeted about $260,000 for legal expenses for 2013.
The parish has spent $116,872 on legal expenses to date, not including work performed in June but billed in July, putting the parish on track to potentially outspend its legal budget by about $20,000 by year’s end.
Moody said the rising costs are to be expected for a growing parish confronted with more sophisticated and complex litigation.
As parish officials become more aggressive in passing ordinances and screening development applications, they become subject to more potential litigation, he said.
“The people suing the parish are also becoming more sophisticated, suing not just the parish but the president or councilmen in their individual capacities,” he said. “And those are suits that just can’t be ignored because if a judgment is rendered, they can collect on it.”
“It’s a perfect storm of problems that has created a legal mess and a lot of expense,” he said.
Councilman Chance Parent, who chairs the Finance Committee, said the rising costs are troubling, particularly since the council had no voice in the original fee negotiations with Moody.
“My problem is with the numbers, not with who was picked,” Parent said. “Chris is a great attorney. We just need to look at other options.”
Parent suggested creating an in-house legal department with a salaried attorney, but acknowledged that would require a change to the parish’s home rule charter.
Perrilloux, the district attorney, agreed amending the charter would probably be best.
“Quite frankly, I think it’s time to change it,” Perrilloux said. “I don’t think the DA needs to be the parish’s legal adviser.”
The relationship enshrined in the charter is a carry-over from prior law, dating back to the parish’s police jury days, and has the potential to create intergovernmental conflicts, he said.
But setting up an in-house legal department can be costly as well, Perrilloux said, noting there would be overhead expenses for space and other resources that go beyond just salaries.
“If they want to keep legal expenses down, they should try staying out of lawsuits,” he said.
Moody said parish officials also may want to consider buying liability insurance. The cost of a premium could keep them from paying for a private attorney for many of the suits filed against them, he said.
Livingston Parish legal expenses
Chris Moody: $115,436.08
Pittman Law Firm: $1,436.18
Chris Moody: $248,568.20
Shelby Easterly: $48,925.54
Pittman Law Firm: $3,741.91
Blayne Honeycutt: $3,487.57
William Credo III: $600.00
Shelby Easterly: $148,640.39
Blayne Honeycutt: $41,850.00
Robert Harrison Jr.: $37,187.02
Pittman Law Firm: $10,046.02
Kutak Rock: $2,400.00
Dannie Garrett: $2,220.00
Shelby Easterly: $202,117.14
Blayne Honeycutt: $41,245.50
McGlinchey Stafford: $23,160.66
Pittman Law Firm: $6,387.65
Source: Livingston Parish Finance Director Jennifer Meyers
Most costly lawsuits handled by Livingston Parish’s legal adviser in 2012
Livingston Parish Council v. Alvin Fairburn and Associates: $55,145.61
Livingston Parish Council v. C-Del: $52,510.53
David Roberts v. Mike Grimmer: $39,902.70
Dorian Gray v. Livingston Parish Council: $21,268.23
IED v. Livingston Parish Council: $6,486.07
Source: Livingston Parish government