Joseph Lee's Legal Fees: One Last Boondoggle?




In recent days, lots of folks have begun jumping the HMS Herenton before it leaves the dock, taking lovely parting gifts in the form of 5- and 6-figure pensions. (As God is their witness, they'll never have to guard another body!)

And now, the city's various legal eagles have also signed off on a final parting gift from the taxpayers: A $426,422 payment to cover former MLGW head Joseph Lee's legal fees, owed to former city attorney Robert Spence. Take out weekends and holidays, and Spence billed Lee more than $1,000 a day for the 489 days he handled the case! This bill is absurdly high and if it's not an absolute rip-off of the taxpayers of Memphis, Spence at least should have to prove it. Remember, this case didn't even go to trial!

A little backstory: The MLGW board initially voted to pay Lee's legal fees, because, well, that's how they roll. Keep things cozy and civil. No big deal. What's a half-million-dollar legal fee among friends? The City Council, thinking that $1,000 a day over the course of a year and a half was just a tad excessive, voted not to pay the fees. It should be noted that the council's attorney is former city attorney Alan Wade, who is ALSO a former law partner of Spence's (Thanks, Marty!).

Today, we learned that the city's legal department, headed by current city attorney, Elbert Jefferson, decided to go ahead and "settle" the dispute by paying Lee's bill. I'm not a lawyer (though I'm married to one), but in my experience, a settlement is a compromise. This was more like a full capitulation, a cozy "let's not take this to court" arrangement. It's bullshit. Spence's bill should have been picked apart by Jefferson and fought tooth and nail, in court if necessary -- billed hour by billed hour, charge by charge. If Spence really put in that much time and effort defending Joseph Lee, let's see the evidence -- or let a jury see it.

Let's review, shall we? We have a former city attorney (Spence) getting massive legal fees on behalf of a former MLGW employee and current city employee, Joseph Lee. We have another former city attorney (Wade, a former partner of Spence's, remember) representing the City Council. And we have the current city attorney deciding to "settle" with a former city attorney for the full amount of what appears to be an inflated legal fee, with the blessing of his former partner, another former city attorney.

Something seems very odd here. It's all too cozy. If I'm interim mayor Myron Lowery, the first thing I do is very publicly fight this payment "on behalf of the taxpayers." Then I fire all the lawyers and rebuild the city's legal department, which has been consistently over budget for years. Lowery's got 90 days to show he means business and make a name for himself. AC Wharton's got a head-start and a bucket of cash. Myron's only shot is to very publicly clean up City Hall and make himself the candidate of change. And, dare I say it — hope.

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