College of DuPage legal fees hit $1.3 million in three months

Attorneys working for the College of DuPage were paid $1.3 million during a recent three-month span, nearly six times the college's combined legal expenses in the three months before a regime change on the board of trustees after the April elections.

That doesn't include another $354,463 three firms billed in August.

Detailed invoices obtained by the Daily Herald for some of the law firms show billing of tens of thousands of dollars for investigating former COD President Robert Breuder in the lead-up to his firing by the board this month, as well as more than $1,600 to research whether current board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton's censure last year was legal.

Lawyers also billed COD for researching whether the college has to notify the public that it is establishing a new email account for people to submit Freedom of Information Act requests.

Since becoming corporate counsel of the college in May, Wheaton-based Rathje & Woodward has billed the college $240,355 through August, according to the invoices. Much of the firm's billing is related to dealing with Freedom of Information Act requests, largely generated by the public.

The firm billed for more than 400 hours of staff time on FOIA-related issues, with invoices for the work totaling more than $95,000. Some of the billing was related to FOIA requests submitted by trustees Erin Birt and Dianne McGuire, the invoices show.

McGuire said she submitted the FOIAs because the college's new attorneys are "withholding legal memorandum, guidance and billing from half of the board."

Attorneys at Rathje & Woodward billed the college $1,152 in July for researching the board's "fiduciary" responsibilities and penalties for board members who breach those financial obligations.

"I am especially incensed when I hear that thousands of dollars were wastefully and inappropriately spent investigating members of the board of trustees who dared request legal documents and financial information related to the college," McGuire said in an email responding to questions about legal bills.

Other law firms were paid even more. In June, five firms were paid a total of $291,758. In July, seven firms were paid $386,587. August's legal bills totaled $638,186 for eight firms, according to college financial documents.

Some critics complain the board's legal costs to fight the ousted Breuder regime are going to outpace what it would have cost for his severance.

Breuder was set to retire in five months and receive a $763,000 buyout package. By firing him, the college doesn't have to pay the buyout deal and saved five months of his $495,357 annual compensation package - or roughly $200,000. But Breuder has vowed to fight his firing and has already filed a federal lawsuit against the college and four board trustees, including Hamilton.

Chicago-based law firm Schuyler, Roche & Crisham billed the college $87,269 on Breuder-related matters in August alone, according to detailed invoices. Those costs were more than half the firm's $160,191 invoice that month.

"We're cleaning up someone else's mess," Hamilton said of the growing legal bills. "Reformers always pay the cleanup costs and we are no exception. For the folks who made the mess to complain about the cleanup costs is the height of hypocrisy."

Hamilton rose to power as a fiscal hawk after a battle with other board members over Breuder's retirement package approved by the board in January. Hamilton was the lone dissenting vote.

When three of Hamilton's allies were elected to the board in April, Breuder was put on leave, two other key administrators were also ousted and the college's legal team experienced a near-wholesale change, a transition that helped increase legal costs, according to the detailed invoices.

A federal investigation into the college's spending practices has also exacerbated the college's legal costs, according to COD's financial records. College officials hired the well-known Chicago-based Schiff Hardin law firm to handle the federal case before the new board members taking control, and Schiff Hardin was kept on for continuity's sake. The firm has billed the college nearly $500,000 between April and August, according to college financial records.

Hamilton added that it was another board member who asked attorneys to look into expunging her censure and she didn't have an opinion on the matter.

"A censure is supposed to keep someone silent," Hamilton said. "Did it work? Do you think I've been kept silent?"

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  The College of DuPage Board Trustee Dianne McGuire Mark Black/
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