Bankole: Flint on hook for legal tab, pays severance

Bankole Thompson, The Detroit News

Flint, the city rocked by lead poisoning of its water system, may be on the financial hook for a long time picking up the legal tab in a potential criminal probe of a former emergency manager as well as giving out a handsome severance to a former city attorney who resigned his job to take another position.

Darnell Earley, the former emergency manager under whose tenure the city switched from the Detroit River to the corrosive Flint River, is seeking to have Flint pay for any possible criminal or civil proceedings that may emanate.

Earley, who did not return an email request for an interview, has asked the Clark Hill law firm in Detroit to represent him in any criminal or civil case arising from the Flint saga, according to sources.

Multiple investigations into the water crisis are being conducted by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette as well as the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice. Schuette on Wednesday announced a civil lawsuit against three companies — Veolia North America, Lockwood Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN) and the Leo A. Daly Co. — that he accuses of being culpable in the water crisis.

Earley has not been charged with any crime nor has he been mentioned as a target of any investigations so far.

But Clark Hill attorney Reginald Turner on May 12 sent a request to Stacy Erwin Oakes, the Flint city attorney, notifying the city that his law firm would be representing Earley in any future investigations from the water crisis. That request was subsequently followed by a $467,460 tab that Turner sent to the city indicating how much the firm would need to charge in its representation of Earley.

Flint has yet to approve Earley’s half-million dollar proposed retainership of Clark Hill and discussions are ongoing, sources familiar with the negotiations said.

Turner, who would not discuss the issue, would only say, “We don’t represent Darnell Earley at this time.”

Oakes acknowledged receipt of the estimated bill and the city’s obligation under state law to cover the legal costs for outside representation of Earley. But she said the city also has an obligation to try to negotiate those costs. “The law is clear on our obligation,” she said. “However it is just as clear that I must request a conflict check and an estimated budget before agreeing to the terms in an engagement letter.”

Earley’s legal tab is not the only financial issue Flint has to worry about now. Peter Bade, the former city attorney who resigned in December to take a staff attorney position with the Hurley Medical Center, was given a $32,000 severance package by former city administrator Natasha Henderson. Bade was earning a $98,000 salary.

Bade, who resigned Dec. 3, signed a severance deal Dec. 28, releasing the city of any claims or demands. But in a memo that Bade sent to Mayor Karen Weaver the day after he resigned, he stated the mayor and Henderson are required to co-sign any contract entered into on behalf of the city.

Weaver’s signature was not on Bade’s severance package.

Bade did not return requests to discuss the issue.

Katherine Smith Kennedy, the attorney representing the former administrator in a whistleblower lawsuit against the city, said Henderson could not discuss her past work in Flint.

“Mayor Weaver was not informed of the contract that was signed on Dec. 28,” Oakes said adding that they are looking into the issue.

State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, said he is worried about the financial drain Earley’s legal tab and Bade’s contract could have on the city.

“The actions created by the former city administrators, former emergency managers raise a lot of questions. I would encourage all investigative entities to uncover some of these deeds that have been done to the residents of Flint,” Neeley said.

The Rev. Alfred Harris, leader of Concerned Pastors for Social Action in Flint, said residents are being left out.

“Darnell Earley is within his right and the law to be represented. It’s part of the system. But who is going to make the people of Flint a priority?,” Harris said. “You have money to pay lawsuits for elected and appointed officials. What do you have for the people?”

Quincy Murphy, the Flint Charter commissioner, said the city should not pay for Earley’s representation.

“Flint was under an emergency manager and all decisions and approvals were by the appointment of the manager appointed by the governor — not the residents or city,” Murphy said.

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.