Collin County taxpayers want their money back.
Collin County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Monday to take another step toward recovering excessive legal fees paid to private attorneys appointed to head the politically motivated prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
After meeting in executive session to discuss a recent court decision voiding some payments made to three prosecutors, Commissioner Chris Hill introduced a motion authorizing the county’s legal counsel to file a petition with the appeals court “declaring that the first order on payment of attorney’s fees to attorneys pro tem is void.”
If that petition is successful, Hill said, then the next step will be to demand the “disgorgement” or return of all public funds that were paid erroneously to the prosecutors – estimated at $370,000.
A week ago, the Dallas Court of Appeals ruled that Judge George Gallagher’s order to the Commissioners Court requiring the county to pay Houston criminal defense attorneys Brian Wice, Kent Schaffer, and Nicole DeBorde in excess of $200,000 for work prosecuting Paxton in 2016 is void and must be vacated. That opinion also undermined the legal basis for an earlier order – which the commissioners voted to challenge – that caused the county to pay the attorneys in excess of $250,000 for work performed in 2015.
At the crux of the court’s opinion was the conclusion that a handshake deal between Collin County Judge Scott Becker and the three criminal defense attorneys from Houston in which Becker agreed to pay the trio $300 per hour was unlawful. That means a claim by the county for disgorgement of the fees would likely succeed.
Wice, Schaffer, and DeBorde have said they will appeal the court’s ruling cutting their pay.
Commissioner Susan Hayes Fletcher said that it will be up to the appellate court to decide on clawing back the attorneys’ fees, but that a plain reading of the court’s opinion “makes it very clear that these fees were unjust enrichment of the special prosecutors, and both judges [Becker and Gallagher] relied on local rules that went beyond their statutory limits.”
“The local rules also clearly state that attorneys are not to be paid until the end of the trial, and I don’t see anywhere in the local rules that allows for more than one special prosecutor overall,” Fletcher added.
Fletcher has long been an outspoken critic of how taxpayers’ money was being spent on the Paxton case, and says lawyers’ fees paid by the county shouldn’t be amped up just because a case is “high profile.”
“The law should apply equally to everyone, no matter who is being prosecuted or defended. I have written about this extensively from the beginning, and pointed out that if this had happened in a small rural Texas County, it would have bankrupted the county. If you set minimums and maximums on a fee structure, you cannot arbitrarily and capriciously award exponentially more just because it is a high-profile case. That in itself is ‘manifestly inappropriate,'” Fletcher said.
Commissioners are set to meet again next week in executive session to discuss details with the county’s principal attorney, who wasn’t available at Monday’s meeting. At that time, Fletcher says they will also consider a disgorgement claim regarding fees paid to two additional special prosecutors, as well as to David Feldman, the lawyer representing the three overpaid attorneys in related lawsuits.