Collin County taxpayers want their money back after the state’s top criminal appellate court ruled the county overpaid three special prosecutors hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The excessive legal fees—estimated at over $370,000—were paid to private attorneys appointed to work on the politically motivated prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. In November, Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that the attorneys’ pay rate of $300 an hour, improperly authorized in a handshake deal in 2015 by then-District Judge Scott Becker, was unlawful. Taxpayers rejected Becker’s attempt at re-election in 2018.
Last month, the court declined to reconsider its ruling, blocking future payments to the prosecutors and undermining the legitimacy of past outlays. Local taxpayers are now calling on county commissioners to recover all public funds illegally paid during the four-year-old case—action commissioners appear ready to take.
“I’m here to encourage you to get a refund,” county resident Brian Newman said at Monday’s Collin County Commissioners Court meeting. “The rule of law clearly wasn’t followed in this case.”
Newman’s conservative grassroots organization Collin Strong led the citizen call to claw back the money after commissioners included the case on their July 8 executive session agenda. The group urged commissioners to pursue disgorgement—a court-ordered repayment of illegally obtained funds.
“There has to be some kind of accountability to prevent things like this from happening in the future,” county resident Al Wirtz told commissioners Monday. “Do everything you can to force a refund.”
“It’s the taxpayers’ money,” Newman added. “Bring all that money back, then pay them what they’re owed.”
If the county succeeds in getting excess fees disgorged, taxpayers will recoup the vast majority of the exorbitant payments. Collin County’s fee schedule for court-appointed attorneys in felony cases authorizes a flat $1,000 for pre-trial preparation, plus a discretionary per-case adjustment of up to $1,000. By law, when private attorneys are appointed to act as prosecutors, they cannot be paid more than court-appointed defense attorneys.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed in November the county cannot exceed its scheduled fee limit.
The decision upheld an August 2017 ruling by the Dallas Court of Appeals that voided District Judge George Gallagher’s order requiring the county to pay Houston criminal defense attorneys Brian Wice, Kent Schaffer, and Nicole DeBorde in excess of $200,000 for pre-trial work in 2016. The opinion concluded the deal in which Judge Becker agreed to pay court-appointed Paxton prosecutors an unlimited $300 per hour violated the Texas Fair Defense Act.
Collin County commissioners quickly moved to challenge court-ordered fees already paid to Wice, Schaffer, and DeBorde, as well as overpayments to three more attorneys involved in the Paxton case, laying the groundwork for recovering taxpayers’ money.
The appellate courts’ rulings validate the county’s legal basis for challenging exorbitant bills of all the outside attorneys unduly profiting from the Paxton prosecution, and for seeking disgorgement of overpayments taxpayers have already made.
Commissioners did not publicly discuss the case following Monday’s executive session but are expected to pursue further action to retrieve taxpayers’ money.