NEW ORLEANS --One of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's biggest arguments against consent decrees for the New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish Prison is the price tag.
But at the same time the city is crying poverty, city taxpayers are paying high-priced attorneys to fight the lawsuits in court.
Even before this week's four-day fairness hearing on the parish prison consent decree, the city had paid more than $403,715 to outside attorneys to contest the documents.
Since January, former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg has represented the city as it contests the prison agreement, earning $325-an-hour to argue the city's case. Rosenberg was the city’s lead attorney throughout this week’s proceedings before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.
Attorney Ralph Capitelli was also there, getting paid $250-an-hour, along with his son and law partner Brian Capitelli, whose contract calls for $175-an-hour. The father-and-son law partners were in court to monitor the city's interests in the police department consent decree.
A city spokesman said both legal teams were hired through a competitive process based on the attorneys' expertise and experience.
Prison activist Norris Henderson, director of the non-profit group Voice of the Ex-Offender, attended most of this week's hearings and was stunned to hear how much money the city was paying for attorneys instead of the underlying reforms at the heart of the consent decree battle.
"You've got to be kidding me,” Henderson said. “At a time when we're saying we can't afford the consent decree, we're wasting this kind of money defending the consent decree? It would be cheaper for us to just go along with the consent decree and call it a day."
When Landrieu addressed the City Council at an emergency meeting on the issue on March 28, he repeated his message of “dire” financial consequences if the consent decrees are approved as drafted.
"The bottom line is that both the OPSO and NOPD consent decrees cannot be paid for at the same time without raising taxes or substantially gutting all aspects of city services, especially public safety," Landrieu said.
But at the time Landrieu issued that warning, the meter had been running for Capitelli’s firm for nearly two years on the police consent decree. Since 2011, the firm has been granted a professional services contract and two extensions.
Rosenberg's firm, Phelps Dunbar, was granted its contract in January.
"It's just going to add to the overall cost of the operation," said Rafael Goyeneche of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Goyeneche noted that the legal fees may pale in comparison to the multi-million dollar price tags to implement the consent agreements.
The police consent decree is estimated to cost up to $55 million over five years, while the prison consent decree is estimated at $17 to $22 million a year for an unspecified period.
But as long as all sides are battling over the agreements in court, the legal costs will continue to rise, Goyeneche said.
"Even though it's referred to as a consent decree, it's really an adversarial decree, at least at this stage,” Goyeneche said. “And ultimately, the decision is going to be made by the lawyer on the bench and that's Judge Africk. In the meantime, the meters are running."
The sheriff's office is also using taxpayer dollars for outside attorneys. The law firm Usry, Weeks and Matthews, the sheriff's longtime legal counsel is paid about $135,000 a month to represent the jail on all legal matters, including the consent decree.
The city issued the following statement Friday in response to our original story:
“The City hires outside counsel when expertise is necessary. In this case, the City is spending money to protect the taxpayers of New Orleans from a possible $110 million or more judgment from the OPSO suit. DOJ and the Sheriff have essentially asked the taxpayers of the City to write a blank check for an office where waste, fraud, and abuse run rampant. The City has spent about $37,000 on legal counsel for the OPSO matter to date. To the extent these legal costs reduce the financial liability to the taxpayers and protect against misspending, it is well spent. If the judgment is rendered in OPSO, the federal courts could seize the funding in the current fiscal year leading to layoffs, furloughs and service cuts including devastating cuts to public safety agencies.
“Your story reflected outside legal costs for both the NOPD and OPSO litigation. Again, the legal costs in the OPSO matter is about $37,000 for a $110 million or more judgment. Much of the NOPD consent decree legal costs were not spent fighting but in fact negotiating the NOPD consent decree.
“The law firms were procured through the City's reformed competitive selection process based on its relevant subject matter expertise. And the contracts were budgeted for. The judgment that we are fighting is not. Additionally, the City Attorney’s office overall budget has been cut dramatically under Mayor Landrieu.”