April 29, 2008
Improvement Authority Legal Bills Sought
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Tina Renna, President
Union County Watchdog Association
Walter Lauers, esq.
UNIOIN COUNTY WATCHDOG ASSOCIATION FILES RECORDS COMPLAINT SEEKING TO VIEW $64,624.96 IN IMPROVEMENT AUTHORITY’S LEGAL BILLS
The Union County Watchdog (“UCWA”) announced today that it has retained attorney Walter Lauers, to file a complaint with the states Government Records Council against the Union County Improvement Authority (“UCIA”).
This action has been brought because the Records Custodian of the UCIA, Charlotte DeFilippo who is the Executive Director of the UCIA as well as the Chairman of the Union County Democratic Committee, has violated the Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”) by redacting nearly all of the information in law firm invoices totaling $64,624.96 for UCIA’s legal work and by not providing a specific, legal basis for doing so.
The Union County Watchdog Association routinely obtains the UCIA’s bills lists and posts them on their website for free public access. “We ordinarily don’t ask to review legal bills, there are so many of them, but these two submitted at the end of the year caught my eye” said Tina Renna, president of the UCWA. “The amounts $28,529.66 and $36,095.30 respectively for a total of $64,624.96 seemed rather high to be marked “general file” and not assigned to a specific UCIA project.”
“Given the knowledge that the taxpayers are footing the bill for DeFilippo’s lawsuit, which was brought by a county employee who alleges DeFilippo routinely intermingles her political business as the Union County Democratic Chairman (She prefers to be called Chairman) with the management of county government, I thought a closer look at these legal bills was in order” Renna explained.
Records obtained from the UCIA through the Open Public Records Act show that the law firm DeCotiis, FiztPatrick, Cole & Wisler was paid $1,306,634.35 in 2007 and $1,085,552.68 in 2006. This includes $41,879.40 to defend Charlotte DeFilippo in the employee lawsuit which is ongoing.
On March 10, 2008, the Union County Watchdog Association, acting through its President Tina Renna, requested certain legal bills from a UCIA law firm, DeCotiis, FiztPatrick, Cole & Wisler. On March 17, 2008, the UCIA records custodian responded to the request, and provided two heavily redacted invoices. Specifically, the “Date,” “Description,” and “Hours” fields were completely blotted out. Other information may have been blotted out too, but that is impossible to determine. In a rather obvious violation of OPRA, the Records Custodian did not say why the records were redacted, she merely stated that “You will note that information has been redacted.”
Presumably, if the UCIA had given a specific, legal reason for its redactions, it would claim that such information was redacted pursuant to the attorney-client privilege exception in OPRA.
Only communications between a lawyer and client “in the course of the relationship and in professional confidence, are privileged[.]” N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-20. The privilege is limited to “those situations in which lawful legal advice is the object of the relationship.” In re Gonnella, 283 N.J. Super. 509, 512, 570 A.2d 53, 54 (Law Div. 1989). Therefore, not every communication between a lawyer and her client is privileged; rather, only those communications that are in confidence and where lawful legal advice is given.
Under New Jersey law, “the attorney-client privilege . . . does not apply to insulate billings from disclosure.” Hunterdon County Policeman’s Benevolent Association Local 188 v. Township of Franklin, 286 N.J. Super. 389, 394, 669 A.2d 299, 302 (App. Div. 1996) (affirming trial court’s holding that billing records are not privileged and are, therefore, accessible under former Right-to-Know law). Rather, legal fee invoices are only privileged if they reveal client secrets or would reveal strategy. Mundane statements that appear in typical invoices, such as “conference call with client” or “review and digest Smith deposition” are not privileged. “In the experience of this court, [attorney billings] will contain a few word description of the general category of the work performed, the number of hours required to perform the work, the date of the performance, and the total cost to the client.” Id. (quoting lower court). In addition, no privilege would attach to the dates on which work occurred, who performed them, or the time spent on those tasks.
Therefore, the Records Custodian violated OPRA because she did not give a specific, legal basis for redacting the records she produced. In addition, assuming that the basis for the redaction is the attorney-client privilege, that privilege does not apply to legal billings unless they reveal client secrets or reveal legal advice or strategy. Therefore, we request that the GRC review the redacted documents in camera to determine whether the redactions were proper.
Redacted Bills HERE
Travisano lawsuit HERE
Very interesting inside view of the players in the Union County Courthouse View Travisano change of venue request HERE