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Solicitor's fees top $2M over 5 years

| Monday, April 12, 2004

Government agencies in West Mifflin have paid more than $2 million in fees over the past five years to borough solicitor Donald Fetzko and a business he owns.

Fetzko gives legal advice to West Mifflin as the borough's solicitor. He also owns 66 percent of Legal Tax Service, a business that collects delinquent taxes for the borough. That firm also goes after people who are late paying their bills to the West Mifflin Sanitary Sewer Municipal Authority.

Fetzko, who declined to comment, received all the legal work without having to bid because the work is considered a professional service. Professional services don't require competitive bids.

The West Mifflin Borough Council hired Fetzko as solicitor and also appoints the sanitary authority's board members, who hired Fetzko to collect from customers.

The Pennsylvania Ethics Commission declined to comment on whether Fetzko's roles are a conflict of interest. The commission does not govern part-time solicitors because they aren't considered municipal employees.

Geoffrey Hazard, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in legal ethics, said he doesn't have a problem with the arrangement.

"There's nothing wrong with him serving both roles as solicitor and the person who collects delinquent taxes," Hazard said. "But if he's doing both, he could be on to a very nice deal. That's a lot of money for somebody in that type of practice."

Others say government agencies doling out the work should consider requiring competitive bids as a way of reducing the cost.

"It's always good on major professional contracts to get competitive bids," said James Broussard, chairman of Citizens Against Higher Taxes, a Central Pennsylvania-based government watchdog group. "It would benefit taxpayers if municipalities and school boards didn't hand out large professional contracts like that without a competitive bid."

Fetzko's itemized bills submitted for his work as West Mifflin solicitor show he doesn't always follow lawyers' common practice of listing the amount of time spent on each case. Lawyers aren't required to bill in that manner.

David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County Bar Association, said there's no requirement that lawyers account for their time. Typically, billing arrangements are left up to clients and their attorneys, Blaner said.

Broussard, of Citizens Against Higher Taxes, says West Mifflin would be acting prudently if it required Fetzko to submit more detailed information.

"You'd think they would like to know how much time he spent before they paid him," Broussard said.

Ira Weiss, the solicitor for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said he details the time he spends on legal work.

West Mifflin Borough Manager Howard Bednar sees nothing wrong with the lack of detail.

"That's the way he's done his invoicing even before I came here, and I've been here for 10 years," Bednar said.

"I'm happy with the work he does. He does what the (borough) council says. If the council says draft an ordinance, he drafts the ordinance."

Fetzko's total bill as West Mifflin's solicitor for the past five years was $956,000. In addition, his firm Legal Tax Service received $380,000 for collecting delinquent borough taxes the past five years.

"One chef doesn't comment on the next chef's cooking, but certainly, that is a significant amount of legal fees," Weiss said. "But then they may have a significant amount of legal activity."

Fetzko's business received $789,250 more in the past five years going after delinquent customers of the West Mifflin Sanitary Sewer Municipal Authority.

Fetzko is not the only person in his family to do business with West Mifflin.

His wife, Dolores, was one of the sales agents who presented the offer that led to the purchase of a new municipal building in 1997. The borough bought the building, on Lebanon Church Road, for $1.95 million. Documents indicate Dolores Fetzko's real estate firm received a $58,500 commission. It doesn't name the agent who received the commission.

Donald Fetzko, as borough solicitor, was involved in the negotiations and performed legal work on the real estate deal.

James P. Hannan, the general manager of the West Mifflin Sanitary Sewer Municipal Authority, said he hopes to revise the authority's contract with Fetzko when it expires at the end of 2005 or perhaps hire another bill collector.

One flaw in the contract, which was negotiated before Hannan became general manager, is that Legal Tax Service's rates go up when the authority's rates go up, Hannan said.

Hannan said he would have capped Fetzko's fees as he's seen done with other contracts for collecting delinquent accounts.

A 2001 audit rapped Legal Tax Service for failing to provide adequate billing and collection records to determine whether the firm was being paid properly by the authority. In addition, the audit, performed for the authority by the accounting firm Maher Duessel, called for better documentation of how Legal Tax Service handles delinquent accounts.

Hannan said changes have been made, and he's seen a "significant improvement" in Legal Tax Service's performance. He's especially pleased that the firm produces a monthly record of delinquent accounts and what steps have been taken to retrieve the money.

Additional Information:

Fetzko's fees

West Mifflin government agencies have paid lawyer Donald Fetzko and a business he owns more than $2 million in the past five years for his work as borough solicitor and for his business collecting back taxes and delinquent sewer accounts. The payment breakdown (1999 through March 2004):

  • 1999-2004: West Mifflin solicitor: $956,000

  • 1999-2004: Legal Tax Service, collecting delinquent taxes for West Mifflin: $380,000

  • 1999-2004: Legal Tax Service, collecting delinquent sanitary sewer accounts for the West Mifflin Sanitary Sewer Municipal Authority: $789,250

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