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Hiring of outside counsel, an "insider's" game, critics say - abc27 WHTM

Hiring of outside counsel, an "insider's" game, critics say

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) -

Seven of the last eight elected governors in Pennsylvania were lawyers. Milton Shapp was the only non-barrister of the bunch.

And that may explain the comfort and ease that governors enlist the support of outside counsel on cases before the state.

There have been lots of high-profile issues that you've certainly heard of that have sent millions of tax dollars to law firms you probably haven't heard of.

abc27 filed a Right to Know Request with the Office of General Counsel, which hires outside counsel, and found:

  • DLA Piper, a multi-national firm, hit the jackpot on the ill-fated lottery privatization. The firm collected $3,352,529.94. On the same case, an additional $200,000 was spent on Blank Rome, based in Philadelphia.
  • The as-yet-not-implemented and likely-dead Voter ID case meant $942,790.64 in legal fees to Drinker Biddle, a Philadelphia-based firm.
  • Another Philly firm, Cozen O'Connor, netted $631,128.98 for its short-lived lawsuit against the NCAA over sanctions to Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
  • As of December 31, 2013, Lamb McErlane, based in West Chester, collected $63,566.38 to defend Pennsylvania's ban on same sex marriage. The meter is still running at hundreds of dollars an hour.

"The bottom line is a lot of these cases have distinct legal issues," explained Joshua Maus, spokesman for the Office of General Counsel, which has roughly 500 attorneys on staff costing the state tens of millions of dollars a year. (Note: I specifically RTK'd that number in 2009, and it was 500 attorneys costing $44 million a year. I don't have the exact number for 2013.)

"The staff attorneys at times can do the work, and sometimes they can't, so we have to engage outside counsel in order to defend the Commonwealth," Maus said.

Critics don't buy that rationale.

"Most of the time that's baloney," said John Hanger, the former DEP Secretary and former Democratic candidate for governor. Hanger is an outspoken critic of Governor Corbett and insists the process of selecting outside counsel is an insider's game.

"Those law firms have given a big amount of money to the governor in donations," Hanger said. "In the case of Blank Rome, they also gave gifts to he and his wife. This is an example of pay to play in Pennsylvania and its coming right out of the taxpayer's hide."

That criticism is not new. In 2009, I did a story about Governor Rendell who, in a two-year span, steered $11 million to Philly firm Ballard Spahr. The firm employed Rendell before he was governor. The firm employed Rendell after he was governor. Ballard Spahr and its partners contributed mightily to Rendell's campaigns for governor.

In 2009, it was several Republican lawmakers complaining about Rendell's "pay-to-play culture." Rendell's spokesman, like Corbett's now, called it legitimate pay for complex legal work.

Hanger dismisses that explanation.

"Most of the time that's an excuse to write nice checks to people who have given you campaign donations," Hanger said.

Maus argues that under Corbett, the use of outside counsel has decreased and the numbers bear that out. In Rendell's final year of 2010, according to the Right to Know Request, outside counsel expenses totaled $40,568.74. Last year, under Corbett, the costs were $32.6 million, a decrease of 20 percent.

Is less money being spent on outside legal fees? Yes.

Is the number as low as it could, or should, be?

"You do have to defend what you're trying to do," said Representative Brad Roae - (R) Crawford County. "But the cost is alarming at how much we're spending."

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