Corbett's use of outside legal counsel tops $100 million
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania employs 498 attorneys at $46 million, but taxpayers spent $32.7 million last year on outside lawyers — and recently ponied up $2 million for private firms to handle three high-profile cases the state lost, records show.
Over three years, the tab for outside counsel was $100.3 million.
Gov. Tom Corbett won't appeal rulings against the voter ID law or the state's same-sex marriage ban. And last June, U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane tossed Corbett's lawsuit to end NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State University as a result of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, calling it a “Hail Mary pass.”
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, is among critics of the Republican governor's spending on outside counsel.
“The governor has a right to defend his positions, but that's money literally flushed down the toilet,” DePasquale said.
Pennsylvania is not alone in spending millions on outside legal counsel.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hired a firm to produce a report that exonerated him in the so-called Bridgegate scandal. Ohio's attorney general hires and oversees firms that state agencies use for civil and criminal cases. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey established competitive bidding for legal contracts, said spokeswoman Beth Ryan.
“It appears to be working fairly well,” Ryan said.
The West Virginia Record, a legal journal, in 2008 referred to former Attorney General Darrell McGraw's regularly teaming with “lawyers who are also his faithful campaign contributors.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures tracked legislation from 2011 to 2013 in states on topics such as prohibiting contingency fees by outside firms, transparency in private attorney contracting and requiring bids for legal contracts exceeding $1 million.
Corbett's Office of General Counsel paid $943,124 to defend voter ID and $387,493 to defend the 1996 gay marriage law, records show.
General Counsel Jim Schultz hired Cozen O'Connor, a Philadelphia firm where he worked, at $720,194 for the derailed NCAA lawsuit.
Schultz said Cozen O'Connor has expertise in antitrust matters and did $60,000 in upfront legal work at no cost.
Critics point to an appearance of favoritism.
“You have to go overboard to avoid favoritism where big bucks are concerned,” said Gerald Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh professor of political communications.
Using politically connected law firms is not new. Critics of former Republican Gov. Dick Thornburgh called it “pinstripe patronage,” and the state Supreme Court in 1982 ordered Thornburgh to release records of payments.
Governors with both parties have hired top-rated but politically potent firms of their choosing.
“It's an issue that's been alive for decades,” said Barry Kauffman, lobbyist for Common Cause of Pennsylvania.
“It's less nefarious than it appears,” said Chuck Ardo, former press secretary for ex-Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. Ardo had to defend Rendell's paying his former Philadelphia law firm, Ballard Spahr, seven-figure fees for state work, including $1.7 million in 2009.
Schultz, who is paid $148,812, said he demanded 20 percent fee reductions from outside counsel and has relied more on state lawyers, or teams them with private attorneys to reduce fees.
“This idea of political patronage, I think, is quite frankly nonsense,” Schultz said. Many firms worked under governors of both parties for years, he said.
With Corbett's failed attempt to privatize the state lottery — for which the state paid DLA Piper in Philadelphia $2.1 million — and a separate gay marriage case, the state has spent $4.5 million on outside counsel for losing causes.
The state paid Lamb McErlane, a West Chester firm, $387,493 for the gay marriage case and $200,506 for a case requiring Pennsylvania to respect gay marriages from other states.
Schultz said Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office “was more than capable of handling that in-house,” but she referred the gay marriage case to his office, saying she could not defend a law she believed was unconstitutional.
“Why do we have to go outside so often?” asked DePasquale. “If we need to beef up our legal team, then we should” — even if that means paying higher salaries for litigation experience.
DePasquale said the state should compare the cost of hiring staff litigators with outside lawyers. Firms should submit competitive bids for jobs, he said.
Benefits and pensions add to the cost of staff lawyers, said Vince Carocci, former press secretary to the late Gov. Robert Casey. An outside law firm can be paid for a few months or years, and “then there's no further obligation,” he said.
“There's always going to be the perception that someone is getting a good deal,” Carocci said. “... I'd bet 90 percent of the contracts awarded have extremely good value to them.”
Still, said Kauffman with Common Cause, “these venerable law firms play the game as well or better than anyone else. ... The governor needs to go to great lengths to make sure contracts are awarded based on merit and need.”
Among law firms and lobbyists donating $4.3 million to Corbett's attorney general and gubernatorial campaigns, Duane Morris LLP, with offices in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, gave the most at $174,000, according to followthemoney.org. The firm ranked 10th in fees earned for state jobs last year with slightly more than $1 million, records show.
Pepper Hamilton of Philadelphia, whose executive committee is chaired by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, contributed $25,500 and received the most in fees last year: $2.4 million. Freeh authored the 2012 Penn State-commissioned report on an alleged cover-up of Sandusky's child molestations.
Corbett, as a Penn State trustee, helped choose an investigator. Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, is serving a 30- to 60-year prison term.
Pepper Hamilton's work for the state precedes the Corbett administration, Schultz said.
Lamb McErlane, chaired by former Supreme Court Justice William H. Lamb, donated $29,500 to Corbett's campaigns.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Penguins rally late but lose to Panthers, 4-3, in shootout
- Steelers film session: Playoff off coverage holds off Chiefs
- Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium schedules six-week closure
- Dixon says starters playing too much for Pitt basketball team
- McKeesport graduate Brown has found his role for Boston College
- Pitt recruit Whitehead remains committed
- Pirates win bidding for Korean infielder
- Changes abound at Uncle Charley’s Sausage, but taste isn’t one of them
- Steelers linebackers are getting to quarterback with more regularity
- Penn State strolls to 69-49 victory over Dartmouth
- High school roundup: Mt. Lebanon edges Bethel Park girls in overtime