If Collin County Commissioners Court has its way, county taxpayers won’t be on the hook for exorbitant attorneys’ fees improperly authorized by a local judge.
County commissioners moved last week to challenge excessive court-ordered fees to three more attorneys involved in the politically-motivated prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton – bringing to six the number of outside lawyers the county believes have overcharged taxpayers for work related to the Paxton case.
The action followed a similar move by commissioners last month to challenge an order that had required the county to overpay three Houston criminal defense attorneys appointed to serve as special prosecutors in the Paxton case. Kent Schaffer, Brian Wice, and Nicole DeBorde billed Collin County taxpayers a total of $254,000 for pre-trial work in 2015.
In 2016 the trio racked up another $200,000 in legal fees – all at a court-set hourly rate of $300. The county challenged those bills, and in August the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas voided another order by Judge George Gallagher requiring the county to again overpay Schaffer, Wice, and DeBorde. (Gallagher was replaced with a randomly-selected Democrat judge when the trial was moved from Collin to Harris County.)
The appellate court found that Judge Scott Becker, the local administrative judge of Collin County, wrongly agreed to pay the outside attorneys who he’d appointed to work on the Paxton prosecution a rate of $300 per hour, with no cap.
“The law at issue in this case plainly prescribes that all payments made to appointed attorneys in criminal cases be “paid in accordance with a schedule of fees” that includes fixed rates or minimum and maximum hourly rates… Judge Gallagher had no authority to order payment of fees in violation of article 26.05.”
That ruling validated the county’s legal basis for challenging the exorbitant bills of all the outside attorneys unduly profiting from the Paxton prosecution. By seeking to void those bills, commissioners are also positioning the county to recoup, or “disgorge,” overpayments that taxpayers have already made.
Commissioner Susan Hayes Fletcher says she feels an obligation to her constituents, who are footing the bills, to challenge the court-ordered fees. A plain reading of the appeals court’s opinion, she said, “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.”
Commissioner Chris Hill said that, to him, “this issue has been very black-and-white from the beginning. The Texas statutes are clear, the Fair Defense Act seems very clear.”
The state continues to pursue three criminal securities fraud charges against Paxton, even though a federal judge twice threw out related civil charges for lack of evidence. Legal experts say it’s unlikely for a criminal case to succeed when a civil case, which has a lower burden of proof, has failed.
If the Commissioners Court succeeds in its actions, it’s also unlikely that Collin County taxpayers will have to overpay for the overblown prosecution.