Attorney in UT case hides six-figure charges despite terms of contract

Next up for Rusty Hardin: defending one of the accused in the CPRIT scandal.

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

HOUSTON — The lawyers doing the work for the so-called transparency committee of the Texas Legislature are failing to comply with the terms of their contract to avoid embarrassing headlines.

In fact, their non-compliance would seem to be a far plainer violation than any of the accusations they’ve managed to cobble together against whistleblower regent Wallace Hall.

The contract Rusty Hardin signed requires him to submit monthly invoices for his firm’s work on behalf of the committee investigating Hall, but Hardin hasn’t submitted an invoice since Dec. 6.

That Dec. 6 invoice was the third Hardin submitted covering his first 10 weeks on the job, but it was the first to garner negative publicity. Newspapers around the state expressed shock that Hardin’s firm had run up more than $200,000 in charges from late August through October.

The press spotlighted some of the more extravagant expenses — a $508 meal at Vespaio and $400 per night rooms at the Hampton Inn for six people (not five, as originally reported). It left out others, such as town car service and a weird $90 charge for three hours of air conditioning in the office after hours.

In theory, Hardin is jeopardizing his paycheck for work performed in November, December and January, as the terms of his contract require monthly invoices: “Each month, the Attorneys shall submit to the Speaker for review and approval an itemized statement of all work performed under this contract during the preceding month…”

The questions raised by Hardin’s invoices go beyond the obvious — how to do you pay $400 for a room that usually goes for $129? They go beyond the ironic — a transparency committee that’s hiding things. They go to back to the original reason for this whole prosecution, which is that Hall and a majority of the University of Texas System Board of Regents were supposedly “wasting taxpayer dollars” on an “ill-conceived, unnecessary and duplicative investigation,” in the words of Reps. Dan Branch and Jim Pitts, respectively.

If you think back past several now-discarded pretexts for this mock investigation, you’ll remember that last March, Hall and a board majority voted for an outside investigation into a secret forgivable loan program at UT law school after an internal investigation produced a whitewashed report. The internal report found “no evidence that anyone… attempted to or did conceal the forgivable personal loan program,” despite the fact that the school official in charge of compensation said he had been “stunned” to learn of the secret program.

Hall wanted to get to the bottom of it. Pitts and Branch didn’t (although Branch, it should be noted, now wants to be the state’s top law enforcement official). Pitts testified last fall it was that board decision that led him to seek Hall’s ouster.

Now, as a general rule, there are no good reasons to oppose fact-finding or being fully informed; you can, however, sometimes make the case that certain facts aren’t worth the cost of discovery. But there’s no universe where it makes sense to spend more money not learning something than you would have spent learning it.

To figure out how much it’s costing taxpayers to avoid learning the truth about the secret loan program at UT, you’d have to take the $200,000 the UT System has spent on defending itself in this impeachment, and add it to Hardin’s bill, presumably well past a half-million dollars by now.

A closer inspection of Hardin’s invoices shows how he got to six figures so fast. To take a simple example, Hardin’s firm charged a remarkable amount for reading the newspaper and cutting out clips. In just the first 10 days his firm was on the job, it charged $2,250 for 11.5 hours spent reading and clipping the news. In all, the firm has billed $5,575 for entries of that sort.

That doesn’t include a $150 charge on Sept. 27 for something that sounds an awful lot like setting up Google Alerts — “Media capture; develop and consider search terms for media capture project.” It apparently took an hour and a half to do something that takes the rest of us a minute or two.

The fastest route to giant bills is to get a bunch of attorneys working on the same thing at the same time. The heavily redacted invoices are peppered with conferences and phone calls with two, three, four and five attorneys from Hardin’s firm doing a task, such as an interview, that in at least some cases could be done by one.

The hours billed just for one impeachment hearing held Oct. 22-23 came out to $43,225. That wasn’t for all the research and prep. That was just the cost for four attorneys to tag along with Hardin on the trip to Austin and sit through a hearing in which they said nothing, maybe prep a few witnesses or fetch papers, and then come home.

On at least one date, the invoice tells an inconsistent story. On Oct. 10, four of Hardin’s people apparently drove from Houston to Austin to interview staff at UT, with two of them staying the night. Investigator Jim Yarbrough and attorney Jenny Brevorka drove out together, billing $1,210 and $3,450, respectively, for a day that stretched to 11.5 hours because of the drive back.

Attorney Jeremy Monthy billed $3,450 for the same exact 11.5 hours, even though he stayed the night in Austin. Attorney Joe Roden also stayed overnight. Their two rooms at the Doubletree Suites somehow cost $286.35 and $353.16 for just the one night. Roden, however, billed just 15 minutes of work on the case on the days before and after the hotel stay — apparently enough work to excuse putting the hotel room on the taxpayers’ account.

Either that, or he just forgot about billing his hours for those days, and the taxpayers owe him a bit of gratitude.

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000. If you would like to send him documents or messages anonymously, download the Tor browser and go to our SecureDrop submission page: http://5bygo7e2rpnrh5vo.onion

The post Attorney in UT case hides six-figure charges despite terms of contract appeared first on Watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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