Legal expenses mushroom at JCCC
In two months, attorney fees top $56,000
Kansas City Star, The (MO)-May 31, 2006
Author: MELODEE HALL BLOBAUM
Johnson County Community College trustees spent more than half of the school’s annual $100,000 budget for legal services in March and April.
Lathrop & Gage, the law firm that represents the college, billed trustees $56,379.72 for professional services and costs over the two-month period.
Trustees sought legal help for a number of matters in the two-month period, including President Charles Carlsen’s unexpected retirement April 20 amid allegations that he had sexually harassed a female employee in 2003.
The trustees’ charges included a $10,000 engagement retainer paid on April 6 to Corporate Communications Group, Inc., an Overland Park public relations firm led by David Westbrook.
Michael Grimaldi, director of issues management for the company, said Friday that his firm’s total charges for services to the college in April had come to roughly $42,000, including the retainer.
Grimaldi would not elaborate on what services his firm had provided. But, he said, it was not uncommon for law firms in Kansas City and across the nation to hire public relations counsel when a client faced the potential of litigation.
And, he said, the fees often are heavier in the early days of an “issues management” situation than they are later.
Trustee Ben Hodge said Mark Ferguson, the board’s attorney at Lathrop & Gage, had provided valuable assistance.
But in hindsight, he wondered whether trustees had needed the additional PR counsel.
“I don’t know whether we got $42,000 worth of work,” he said. “They’re nice people; I appreciate their work. But I think we could have handled our PR needs entirely from staff we already had at the college.”
The college has 13 full-time and eight part-time staff members in its information and publications department, including a director, two full-time writer/editors in publications and one in media relations, a publications manager, a photographer, four graphic designers, two full-time Web editors and a full-time administrative assistant.
Trustee Lynn Mitchelson said he did not think the staff had the professional credentials to deal with events like those that unfolded at the college in April.
The school’s newspaper published allegations in its April 13 issue that Carlsen had sexually harassed a female employee in 2003. Carlsen denied the allegations to the student newspaper.
He began a voluntary leave of absence that evening and called for an independent investigation.
In his retirement letter, Carlsen said he had done nothing wrong and was pained to see the college distracted by issues having nothing to do with its educational mission.
“This is a unique and unprecedented event,” Mitchelson said. “It calls for calling on the best PR counsel you can. I wouldn’t expect we would need to do it again in the future, unless something very potentially damaging to the college should happen.”
Former Trustee Molly Baumgardner said that using the PR firm simply added a second or third tier to the process of getting information out.
She noted that Westbrook had spoken on behalf of trustees, and wondered why the trustees could not speak for themselves.
“It does not cost a dime to say, ‘No comment,'” she said. “That’s the option that every elected official has.”
Mitchelson said the college might have been on track to exceed its legal budget even before April.
For example, he said the school’s lawyers had handled a higher-than-usual number of personnel issues during the fiscal year, as well as finding new quarters for a northeast Johnson County satellite location when it lost its space at Mission Center.
When charges for the business office and other matters were added in, the school’s Lathrop & Gage bills for March and April totaled $74,811.09. Two-month totals for the previous six months averaged $25,150.52.
Don Perkins, the school’s director of budget and auxiliary services, said Friday that the college had spent about $230,000 for legal services since July 1.
Perkins said the money needed to pay the bills had been transferred from the president’s $500,000 contingency budget.
To reach Melodee Hall Blobaum, call (816) 234-7733 or send e-mail to email@example.com.
Index Terms: News
Record Number: 1868918
Copyright 2006 The Kansas City Star Co.