Legal bills for Greene County commissioners top $228,000 for taxpayers

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. The latest bill is in, and Greene County taxpayers are now on the hook for nearly a quarter-of-a-million dollars in legal fees to an outside law firm. Greene County Commissioners opted to hire the firm in response to a Missouri State Ethics Commission investigation and an audit request from the Missouri State Auditor.

The average Springfield-area worker earns just less than $19 an hour; that's a little more than $750 a week (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). For one of the attorneys listed on the bill from the outside firm, Graves Garrett, that average weekly income locally equals approximately two hours of work as billed by the firm Graves Garrett to taxpayers.

"I went on record voting against hiring them (Graves Garrett), and now we have $228,000 worth of legal bills, and we're still not at the end of it," said Greene County Associate Commissioner Lincoln Hough, who voted against hiring an outside firm in a Dec. 7, 2017 closed -door meeting from which minutes were later released to the media.

Edward Greim is the Graves Garrett attorney listed on the latest invoice received by the county who bills at the rate of $445 per hour. That is $19,179 for 43 hours or work according to the bill.

The total bill for all attorneys at the firm and associates for February alone is $77,172.46.

The legal bills started in December when a whistleblower turned in what the state auditor called a 'credible complaint,' questioning how Greene County leaders may have used tax dollars leading up to a tax increase proposal on the November ballot.

Greene County Commissioners first agreed to submit to the state-requested audit but then reversed course and hired Graves Garrett. Graves Garrett is assisting the county with a Missouri Ethics Commission investigation as well as responding to the state auditor's ongoing request for an audit.

"I think when you have a statewide official (state auditor) who says, 'We can do this,' and, 'We're willing to do this at no cost,' I think that makes a lot of sense as opposed to spending a quarter-of-a-million dollars on legal bills," Hough said.

Hough said he believes the county should reverse course and submit to the audit which the state auditor said would be come out of her budget at no additional cost to Greene County taxpayers.

"I'll be honest. I don't know where it stops," Hough said.

The total legal bill from Graves Garrett for the first three months of work, December-January-February, totals $228,632.57.

KY3/KSPR reached out to the firm for comment after the first invoices were received. Here is the firm's response from five days ago:

“Between December and February, Graves Garrett attorneys counseled Greene County regarding multiple inquiries, reviewed and produced thousands of documents, interviewed a variety of county witnesses, and prepared a detailed factual and legal analysis in response to the MEC’s wide-ranging investigation.”

The KY3/KSPR news team opted not to reach out for comment from the firm again following this bill as the attorney who most often responds to media requests bills county taxpayers at the rate of $445 per hour.

"I think this is a reckless use of taxpayer money. It's unnecessary, and it's reckless when we have an auditor who has offered to resolve this at no cost to the county," Hough said.

KY3/KSPR asked Presiding Commissioner Bob Cirtin not to forward reporter questions on this story to Graves Garrett. Cirtin sent the following response to reporter questions late Tuesday afternoon:

"Greene County is confident that a decision resolving the matter will issue from the MEC within the next few weeks. This renders any duplicative review by the Auditor unnecessary. It is unlikely to be free, and the Auditor will simply take advantage of the time and resources of Greene County staff to redo the work of the MEC. In fact, while the Auditor was spending taxpayer dollars on her public relations effort with the local media, the MEC’s investigators and lawyers were hard at work reviewing thousands of documents and questioning witnesses. The MEC’s investigators reviewed County officials’ conduct under the very statute referenced in the Auditor’s letter, which is the standard under Missouri law for measuring “abuse and misuse of taxpayer funds” with respect to a local ballot measure election. The MEC worked with the full cooperation of County officials and employees.

Between December and February, Graves Garrett attorneys counseled Greene County regarding multiple inquiries, reviewed and produced thousands of documents, interviewed a variety of county witnesses, and prepared a detailed factual and legal analysis in response to the MEC’s wide-ranging investigation. The latest invoice concludes with February, by which time the great bulk of the work was completed. As is customary in engagements of this type, a small portion of the firm’s fee included legal review of proposed press statements and, at times, direct comment to the press to answer its questions on legal developments or legal assertions made by the Auditor.

As a result of the hard work of MEC staff, Greene County employees, and the County’s legal counsel, Greene County expects the results of the MEC’s exhaustive investigation to soon be made known."