$3.4M Snyder tab prompts bill to limit private counsel

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — As state legal bills continue to mount over the Flint water crisis, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich is preparing legislation that would limit Gov. Rick Snyder’s ability to use public funds for private attorneys.

Snyder on Tuesday officially notified the State Administrative Board of contract increases for two private law firms helping his office respond to Flint-related litigation and investigations, increasing the maximum value from $1.2 million to $3.4 million.

The board also approved an amendment requested by the state Department of Environmental Quality, increasing a contract to cover costs of 15 legal agreements related to the water crisis from $2.3 million to $4.5 million.

Ananich’s pending legislation would prohibit the governor, secretary of state or auditor general from using public money for private attorneys “to defend a suit relating to a matter connected with his or her respective office,” according to a draft reviewed by The Detroit News.

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office is typically responsible for representing state officials in such cases.

“This money matters to people,” said Ananich, D-Flint. “The state budget may be big, but every dollar in it came from the hard work of some taxpayer. We should be very careful with how we spend it.”

Snyder’s updated contract with Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker means the firm could earn up to $1.4 million providing “legal services related to civil litigation about municipal drinking water” in Flint, according to a notice. Warner Norcross & Judd stands to earn up to $2 million for “provision of legal services related to records management issues and investigations regarding municipal drinking water” in Flint.

The governor last week defended the public expense for private attorneys.

“This was a lot of the document production, responding to lawsuits in terms of us working as government officials,” Snyder told reporters, referring to his administration’s making public tens of thousands of internal emails.

Ananich and other Democrats argue that Snyder should have set up a legal defense fund because his private attorneys are responding, in part, to requests in a criminal investigation launched by Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Snyder is not facing any criminal charges, but at least one of his private attorneys is a criminal defense expert.

“I think, by and large, if there’s a criminal issue going on, whether there’s been charges or whether they’re just preparing for that, they shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to pay for it,” Ananich said.

Any legislation related to private attorneys for state officials “would have to strike a balance” between the use of taxpayer funding and “ensuring access to legal resources for those executing the duties of their office,” said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

“Unfortunately, legal action is sometimes brought against the state and its officers,” she said. “Some of those instances are valid and some are not.”

While Schuette has installed a firewall to separate his water crisis probe from any defense work related to the crisis, his office has recommended that outside attorneys represent state employees it has charged.

The Department of Environmental Quality said earlier this month it had spent nearly $1.4 million on private attorneys for state workers, some of whom have not been charged, while the Department of Health and Human Services had spent $246,383.

The situation is admittedly “tricky,” Ananich acknowledged, because of the “multiple layers” involving private attorneys and the attorney general’s office probe.

Schuette’s office is helping the governor’s office on some Flint matters “but needed outside counsel to supplement the services provided by the department,” said Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton. “This is a common arrangement — using special assistant attorneys general, in this case Barris Sott.”

Heaton did not discuss specifics of Ananich’s bill but said Snyder would “thoroughly consider the consequences, both intended and unintended,” if it were to reach his desk.

Ananich said he has discussed the proposal with the Joint Select Committee on The Flint Water Public Health Emergency, which took testimony on the crisis and is expected to recommend a series of policy proposals in response.