Meter ticking on Lafayette School Board legal fees

The Lafayette Parish School Board has spent more than $50,000 on legal services since signing an interim contract in February with a private firm for services the board used to receive for free.

In the upcoming school year, the board anticipates spending $183,000 in legal services — an increase of $108,000 from its 2013-14 allocation.

The increase is the result of the board’s decision to hire private attorneys for general counsel services after it relieved the District Attorney’s Office of those duties in November 2013. The DA’s Office provided general counsel services at no charge to the board.

The search to fill the general counsel role has been waylaid by the board’s many meetings over the past two months to find budget cuts to fill a $23.5 million shortfall. The general counsel search committee charged with advertising, interviewing and recommending the top applicants to the full board hasn’t met since May.

During a budget meeting in late June, two search committee members, Kermit Bouillion and Mark Cockerham, along with board member Shelton Cobb supported cutting the additional $108,000 from the legal services account, but the board’s other six members supported the expense.

The delayed search is related to the budget but is more of a timing issue than a financial one.

Board President Hunter Beasley said last week the committee could meet sometime next month, but, for now, the focus is on balancing the budget.

“When we’re meeting two nights a week for the budget, it’s difficult to get the committee together for a meeting,” Beasley said. “It needs to be addressed, and we’ll try to get something together in the next few weeks.”

In the interim, the board in February hired the law firm Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice. The firm, with offices in Baton Rouge and Monroe, was already on the board’s payroll as its special counsel handling litigation as well as legal questions stemming from personnel issues or routine operations, such as reviewing bid documents.

The board spent $50,413 for the firm’s legal services between February and the end of May, based on invoices received by the school system for services. (The invoice for June won’t be issued until the end of July.) During the same four-month time period last year, the board paid at least $32,417 to the firm when it worked as the board’s special counsel.

“I think it’s well worth it because now we have very knowledgeable legal advice being given to us at the meeting,” Beasley said of the interim general counsel. “Nothing against any other attorneys, but school board law is their speciality.”

Since March, either attorneys Bob Hammonds , of the Baton Rouge office, or Jon Guice, of the Monroe office, have attended the board’s meetings to answer questions and advise the board. Sometimes, a second attorney, an associate with the firm, also attends.

The cost of the attorneys’ time came into question during a July 15 meeting when Cockerham interrupted a discussion on the budget to insinuate that Hammonds was overcharging the board because he and another attorney were at the meeting.

Hammonds told Cockerham that he was outraged by the assertion and that his associate, Danielle Boudreaux, has attended several prior meetings at no additional cost to the board.

Hammonds bills at $175 an hour and Boudreaux at $150 an hour.

In a phone interview this week, Hammonds said Boudreaux and other associate attorneys will continue to attend board meetings as part of their training.

“We don’t charge the board for their training,” he said.

The board also isn’t charged for travel time when Baton Rouge attorneys drive to and from Lafayette.

Expenses are higher for the board when Guice, whose office is in Monroe, travels to Lafayette to meet with staff and attend board meetings. Between March and May, Guice had at least 72 billable hours — or $12,635 —related to services he provided in Lafayette either in staff meetings or in board meetings. Guice’s travel expenses (unrelated to travel time) totaled about $1,137, based on invoices.

Beasley said he expects that Guice’s attendance at meetings will become less frequent.

Strained relations between Hammonds and schools Superintendent Pat Cooper could be the cause for Guice’s presence. Hammonds and Cooper have differing opinions on the superintendent’s powers over personnel matters and the board’s power over the budget process.

Hammonds said Guice took on the meeting duty because school staff called him more frequently. “(Guice) was requested by staff to attend those meetings,” Hammonds said.

Hammonds said his office’s six-month review of services between December 2013 and May 2014 shows legal services billed by his firm are $8,000 less than the same time period a year ago.

“That time last year was when the (District Attorney’s Office) was general counsel,” Hammonds said in a phone interview. “Four of the six months, we’ve been the interim general counsel.”

Since November 2013, Cooper has appealed to the board numerous times to resume its relationship with the DA’s Office in lieu of contracting with general counsel — specifically Hammonds’ law firm. Cooper has said the firm’s representation of the Louisiana School Boards Association presents a conflict of interest and the school district should find different representation.

The break with the DA’s Office stemmed from the board’s desire to investigate Cooper and an assistant district attorney telling the Attorney General’s Office the board’s request to hire an attorney for the investigation was unwarranted. After Hammonds’ firm was hired, he resubmitted the board’s request for special counsel for the investigation and it was approved. The status of the investigation and the board’s specific complaints about Cooper haven’t been disclosed.

In May, Cooper refused to pay the firm for the 1.5 hours Hammonds spent in March on the letter to the Attorney General’s Office to resubmit the board’s request to hire special counsel. At the time, Cooper said the work wasn’t authorized or requested by the board, though Beasely said he and Hammonds had discussed the matter.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.