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Lawmakers, ADOC discuss legal fees

A panel of Alabama lawmakers asked Thursday why the Alabama Department of Corrections has hired one private attorney to represent it in dozens of lawsuits, with nearly 30 contracts worth, potentially, more than $22 million.

The largest contract is capped at $9.9 million over two years to represent the state in the 2020 lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice over conditions in men’s prisons.

Despite the price tags, ADOC officials said Bill Lunsford’s expertise and work on multiple lawsuits saves the state money.

“(Lunsford) is basically the only expert in prison litigation in the Southeast, and we’re really lucky to have him representing us,” Mandy Speirs, assistant general counsel for ADOC, told the Legislative Contract Review Committee. Besides representing the embattled agency in nearly two dozen lawsuits that seek damages from the state, he’s also point on four injunctive lawsuits, including two from the U.S. Department of Justice and the nine-year-old federal Braggs v. Dunn, all seeking to reform and improve the state’s prison conditions and operations. 

“If we had different attorneys in different cases, they would be doing the same thing twice and we would be paying for it twice,” Speirs said.

“…I believe (Lunsford) saves the state money.”  

Lunsford has worked for ADOC for years, but recently switched firms to Butler Snow in Huntsville. That move meant his contracts had to be re-issued, bringing the amount of work to attention this week. He had 26 contracts with ADOC on Thursday’s committee agenda totaling up to nearly $15 million. Last month, the department had three contracts with him totaling more than $7 million. Those contracts are caps, meaning the attorneys may not actually earn the total.

“I’m just trying to understand how one individual has been tasked with all this work,” contract committee member Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, said.

Later, when Lunsford’s name was attached to a contract for the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission, Elliott requested a tally of all the attorney’s work for the state.

“Lunsford is basically a government agency at this point,” said Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa. 

Speirs said Lunsford’s $195-per-hour rate, which is standard for contract attorneys for state agencies, gets ADOC his expertise, but also the support of his office.

She said discovery alone in the DOJ lawsuit over the men’s prisons, the discovery phase has generated evidence and information now measured in terabytes of data.

“The Attorney General’s Office nor any law fireman the state of Alabama has the capacity to handle that kind of discovery,” Speirs said. “It has to be outsourced.”

England pointed to larger concerns about the overall cost of defending the state’s dangerous prisons.

“Let’s just be honest, there’s not much to dispute here in terms of liability, in terms of our issues with overcrowding, conditions, staffing and so forth,” England said. “So a lot of it just continues to drag on and ends up costing us a lot of more money instead of just trying to figure out a way to work it out.” 

According to state spending records, ADOC has spent about $2 million on legal contracts this year, most of that for Lunsford’s expertise. Last year, ADOC had $7.1 million in payments to outside lawyers, mostly Lunsford. By comparison, in 2011, ADOC spent less than $1 million on outside legal help. In 2012, it spent about $1.1 million.

Speirs said the DOJ wants changes inside Alabama’s prisons.

“The Department of Corrections is making changes and we are working with the amount of money we have to do the best we can,” she said.

She also said the Attorney General’s office “has prohibited us from settling this case multiple times.”

Separately, Katherine Robertson, chief counsel for the Attorney General’s Office, said it handle in-house about 80% of ADOC’s lawsuits.

“We’re trying to bring the cost down,” Robertson said.

The Legislative Contract Review Committee meets monthly to discuss service and legal contracts state agencies are entering. It can delay contracts, but can’t end or alter them. 

Another legal contract to catch Elliott’s attention was a cost increase in the Alabama Department of Transportations’ agreement with firm Balch and Bingham. It is representing ALDOT after the agency was sued last year by Baldwin County Bridge Company over its decision to build another bridge about a mile from the existing bridge. Construction has been halted as the lawsuit proceeds.

“This is the gift that keeps on giving, we’re now at $1.4 million (for legal fees),” Elliott said. He’s previously said the plan for the new bridge was problematic. 

“It’s just frustrating,” he said about the continued cost.

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