Independence Examiner, Wednesday 05/16/02

Legislature, McQueeny spar again

By James Dornbrook
The Examiner

Conflicting accounts and records with sections blacked out have left Jackson County legislators without answers to questions about how much the Turner vs. Garcia sunshine lawsuit cost Jackson County taxpayers.

"The problem I have is the cost of this continues to go on," said Victor Callahan, Jackson County Legislature chairman. "At some point, who will put a stop to this? Who is in charge to ensure no further tax dollars are spent on this? When will we have some financial accountability regarding this case?"

County Counselor Jane McQueeny replied that her office is still defending the case because plaintiffs have filed post-trial motions. The motions ask the judge to assess the plaintiffs' legal fees to members of the Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints. The County Counselor's Office defended the OHRCC, but lost the case. Legal fees were not part of the original judgment.

Callahan was asking why the county counselor hasn't sought to settle the case. His questions regarding costs centered around whether it would cost less to settle the case or continue fighting it.

"Isn't it in the interest of the taxpayers that we settle this case? Have you made any attempts to stop the bleeding of taxpayer money?" asked Callahan.

"We believe that $500 (in fines) per defendant was a good settlement of this case. What you're asking us to do is spend another $35,000," said McQueeny. "We said from the opening of this case that we were open to settlement offers. We've received no offer from the plaintiffs."

Bob WitbolsFeugen, one of the plaintiffs, disagreed with McQueeny regarding settlement offers. He said a settlement had been discussed on several occasions. However, since the defendants were never willing to admit the Sunshine Law had been violated and wouldn't produce the records he was looking for in the first place, a settlement was out of the question.

"If you can't even admit you made a mistake in holding that closed session, then how could we agree to settle?" asked WitbolsFeugen.

With the cost of the trial being the central issue with Jackson County legislators, an open records request was made by legislators Callahan, Bill Petrie and Terry Young, along with The Examiner newspaper. The request asked for summary case logs from anyone at the counselor's office who worked on the case and any records of costs incurred.

McQueeny's response showed that five lawyers and one paralegal worked on the county's case at some point. Monthly case logs had several sections blacked out and there were no records supplied regarding either McQueeny's or Deputy County Counselor Jay Haden's involvement.

McQueeny said no monthly reports are kept by either Haden or herself. She also explained that areas of the other lawyer's reports were blacked out, after consulting with the Missouri attorney general, to protect privileged information.

The records showed no cost for the case other than about $600 for depositions.

"You've had five lawyers and a budget of over $1 million," said Callahan. "Are you saying you spent less than $35,000 on this (which is the amount spent by the plaintiffs)?"

McQueeny said only one lawyer primarily worked on the case, doing about 90 percent of the work. The other lawyers were only used in a consulting role. She said she was sure the lawyers for the plaintiffs were paid a lot more money than any of the defense lawyers from the Jackson County Counselor's office. She also said because the defense attorneys are county employees, they get paid a salary. Also, no records are kept regarding time spent on cases, so it is impossible for her to determine the labor costs.

Legislator Ron Finley asked McQueeny if all future conversations between the Legislature and the County Counselor's Office were going to require formal requests under the Sunshine law.

"I sincerely hope that this isn't the case," said Finley. "We've asked for information in the past and you didn't provide any records until we made a formal request under the statute. It shouldn't have gotten to the point where we had to resort to an official request to get information."

McQueeny said she would be willing to produce any records legislators want, but she had to protect the interests of her clients.

To reach James Dornbrook e-mail or call 350-6322.
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