Cook County suburbs tally $244 million in legal fees

 
By Andrew Schroedter and Patrick Rehkamp
Better Government Association
Updated 11/25/2015 10:07 AM
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Suburbs in Cook County have spent $244 million on private attorneys since 2010, with some of the largest bills being paid by towns suffering financial hardships brought on by police misconduct and corruption claims, according to a Better Government Association analysis.

Nearly $98 million, or 40 percent, of the $244 million in legal fees went to seven law firms, some of which double as fundraising powerhouses for municipal leaders, according to the analysis.

The suburban legal fee payout is more than twice the $110 million Chicago paid to outside counsel during Mayor Rahm Emanuel's first term, starting May 2011. Combined, Chicago and the 133 Cook County suburbs have spent $354 million for outside legal counsel in the past five years.

"There's no way you can eliminate lawyers," says McCook Mayor Jeff Tobolski. "It's the responsibility of the (village) board to be watching what these guys are doing."

The numbers

The tally is based on records of outside legal spending from 2010 to early 2015 obtained from 133 suburbs through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The records reveal:

• The highest-paid firms are: Klein, Thorpe & Jenkins of Chicago, $23.4 million; Odelson & Sterk of Evergreen Park, $20.3 million; Storino, Ramello & Durkin of Rosemont, $16.4 million; Del Galdo Law Group of Berwyn, $14.8 million; and Holland & Knight, based in Tampa with Chicago offices, $9.7 million.

• Three of the firms -- Odelson & Sterk; Storino, Ramello & Durkin and Del Galdo -- are political campaign donors. Collectively, they have donated about $400,000 since 2010 to candidates and elected officials in towns they have counseled.

• Twenty-one suburbs have spent at least $3 million on private attorneys since 2010. The top spenders are Cicero, $15.3 million; Calumet City, $7.2 million; Harvey, $6.7 million; Oak Lawn, $6.6 million; and Rosemont, $6.1 million.

The BGA found outside legal firms often act as a municipality's primary counsel.

In that role, attorneys write ordinances and resolutions, negotiate contracts and collective bargaining agreements, prosecute village code violations and oversee public meetings to ensure transparency laws are followed.

Most Cook County suburbs pay private attorneys hourly rates of $150 to $300. As many as 24 in-house attorneys also are employed in Cook County suburbs, typically at salaries of at least $100,000 annually. Neither they nor legal settlements are included in the $244 million tab.

Corruption costs

Legal costs have soared in suburbs facing claims of corruption or police misconduct, such as Schaumburg, which has paid about $500,000 to defend 17 wrongful arrest lawsuits involving three former officers accused of operated a drug ring. Six cases are still pending. In the 11 lawsuits that have been resolved, one was dismissed and 10 were settled with Schaumburg paying accusers $5,000 to $32,000, according to the village.

Countryside has spent $4.1 million since 2010 on private attorneys, with a "substantial amount" going toward an investigation into boosting end-of-career employee retirement benefits by the suburb's police pension board and a probe of a former police chief, who was convicted of misusing donations intended for a nonprofit he ran, Mayor Sean McDermott said.

Cicero and Calumet City had the highest legal bills, largely because of litigation of alleged police misconduct, the BGA found. Most of the cash went to two firms: Cicero has paid Del Galdo Law Group $10 million since 2010, while Calumet City has paid $6 million to Odelson & Sterk.

The suburbs have each been sued 28 times from 2008 to mid-2013 for excessive force, wrongful arrest and other related misconduct claims, the BGA previously reported.

Cicero spokesman Ray Hanania blames his town's legal bills on "lingering lawsuits that were dragged out by the prior administrations."

Elgin has an in-house staff of three attorneys but still spent $4.5 million on outside legal counsel since 2010.

The reasons vary but mainly include litigation involving workers' compensation, a revoked liquor license and a labor spat with the fire department. The suburb also took legal action after a homebuilder went bankrupt amid the global economic collapse and left a massive residential project unfinished. Elgin paid about $570,000 in legal fees but ultimately received settlements totaling $3.5 million, said William Cogley, Elgin's top in-house attorney.

Mount Prospect's legal expenses, totaling $4.2 million, were fueled in part by a legal fight over a downtown bar that the village wanted for redevelopment, according to records and interviews.

Clout contacts

Municipal attorneys interviewed by the BGA say they obtain most of their local government work through a public bidding process.

But some also make political contributions to the people who employ them or could potentially hire them. Case in point: When Robert Lovero ran for Berwyn mayor in 2009, Storino, Ramello & Durkin donated $750 to his campaign and Del Galdo Law Group gave $1,000. At the time neither firm did business in Berwyn.

After Lovero won, he hired both law firms, and since 2010 Berwyn has paid Storino $347,628 and Del Galdo $736,647, according to interviews and municipal records.

Lovero declined interview requests. But Anthony Bertuca, Berwyn's in-house city attorney, says the donations had no bearing on the mayor's decision to hire the law firms.

"Absolutely not," he says. "They're two extremely well-qualified and renowned municipal law firms."

Storino, Ramello & Durkin has donated nearly $59,000 since 2010 to campaign funds benefiting Rosemont Mayor Bradley Stephens, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Over that same span Stephens' government has paid the law firm $1.7 million, according to records.

Attorney Don Storino says he sees nothing wrong with supporting Stephens and does so because "he's done quite the job for his community."

The donations, he says, have nothing to do with the firm's Rosemont business.

The BGA found other examples of law firms giving money to elected officials in towns where they work.

Since 2010 Odelson & Sterk has contributed $52,000 to Calumet City Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush and other elected officials in the south suburb, the firm's largest municipal client, according to elections board data.

Meanwhile, Del Galdo Law Group has donated $40,000 over that period to campaign funds benefiting Cicero Town President Larry Dominick.

Del Galdo declined interview requests. He issued a statement that says, "My contributions to the Cicero Voters Alliance (Dominick's campaign fund) aim to support a broad range of local candidates for multiple regional offices, including local school boards, rather than one particular individual."

Not all municipal law firms agree that supporting candidates is appropriate.

The Chicago office of Holland & Knight has a policy of not donating to political candidates in suburbs the firm represents, says Steven Elrod, head of the firm's local government practice.

Elections board data show the firm has given to lawmakers at the state and county levels, but "we are not involved in local politics," says Elrod, whose firm counsels about 20 suburbs, including Arlington Heights and Des Plaines.

• This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Andrew Schroedter and Patrick Rehkamp, who can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.

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