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Taxpayers To Pay For Governor’s Legal Bills

Virginia taxpayers must brace themselves for the prospect of paying Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his staffs’ legal bills even after he leaves office January 11, 2014. They are being represented by two private firms after being the subject of state and federal criminal investigations. The Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli II, appointed the firms in his place after determining that he had a conflict of interest.

Invoices released last week “showed that the two firms charged nearly $210,000 for their services between August and November, bringing their total fees to nearly $785,000.” McDonnell has also hired his own legal team, “paid for by donors and allies.”

Last month Federal prosecutors notified McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, that they were charging the couple because of their relationship with a dietary-supplement executive. The decision was put on the back-burner after “the McDonnells’ attorneys appealed to top Justice Department officials in Washington.”

The final decision as to how to handle the state-funded legal representation will pass to the incoming Attorney General, Mark Herring, since McDonnell and Cuccinelli will be leaving office shortly.

McDonnell has said he’s sorry for his relationship with businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., but maintains that he did nothing illegal and did not help Williams or his company in exchange for gifts. It is believed that Williams Sr. “provided more than $165,000 in gifts and loans to McDonnell and his family.”

Eckert Seamans was originally tasked with representing the governor’s office in May. According to the most recent invoices released by the firm, they logged 535 hours in August, September and October, charging “$17,000 over the three months.”

Later Baker & McKenzie was tasked with representing the governor’s staff members. They claim to have worked 215 hours in October and November, “charging $92,656.”

Eckert Seamans charges up to $250/hour and Baker & McKenzie charges up to $450 an hour. Both firms note that these rates are “discounts from the firms’ standard billing practices.”

While Herring will find that the “need for legal counsel for former McDonnell staff members” still exists, he could revisit the case to see if his office can handle it. The conflict plaguing Cuccinelli has dissipated and is no longer an issue.

Eckert Seamans was originally hired to represent the governor’s office in response to allegations that the former executive chef, Todd Schneider, was stealing food from the mansion kitchen.

In response, Schneider argued that McDonnell’s adult children “took state-owned food and other items from the residence.” Schneider also disclosed evidence that showed Williams Sr. paid for “the catering at the wedding of the governor’s daughter.

Cuccinelli didn’t think he could represent the governor’s office as it responded to those claims since his office was prosecuting Schneider. Schneider’s case was settled in September, when he pled no contest to two misdemeanors.

Cuccinelli also had another conflict in the matter. He also allegedly accepted gifts from Williams Sr. Some of these gifts were disclosed by law, but only after the governor’s transgressions became public.

Herring can also reevaluate who should be responsible for monitoring billing for the attorneys. Recently, this has been handled by Jasen Eige, the governor’s counsel. It is also his duty to periodically release the firms’ invoices. To date, most have been so heavily redacted that a public assessment of the attorneys’ activities is near impossible.

Since the legal bills continue to rise, the General Assembly is expected to revisit rules for hiring outside counsel when it meets for its annual legislative session.

Delegate Scott Surovell has proposed a bill that would “limit the fees that can be spent on outside counsel to no more than the amount paid to lawyers appointed to represent indigent clients accused of serious felonies.”

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