By Karen Gray
The Clark County School District Office of General Counsel has an annual budget exceeding $3 million and a legal team of 10 attorneys, nine secretarial and clerical staff, plus one administrator.
Part of that $3 million each year is the $500,000 allocated for the hiring of additional, outside attorneys.
Nevertheless, in the last three school years the office has exceeded its outside-counsel budget and has paid out over $2.1 million to 10 private law firms. Of that, over $1.2 million went to two firms — Greenberg-Traurig, and Lewis and Roca (now Lewis Roca Rothgerber), according to CCSD records reviewed by Nevada Journal.
For this school year, the CCSD legal office is some $179,000 over its legal services budget.
As of last November, more than a third of the $1.2 million that went to Greenberg-Traurig and Lewis Roca Rothgerber had been spent to defend CCSD in the Angela Peterson wrongful death lawsuit, according to the records.
Angela Peterson was killed in November 2009 after teenager Kevin Miranda — who had admittedly gotten drunk at a party involving CCSD police employees where underage teens had been allowed to drink —
smashed his car into that of the UNLV honor student, killing her.
At the time, allegations circulated that school police supervisors had attempted a cover-up. Earlier this year, federal magistrate Larry Hicks ruled that evidence of a cover-up initiated by school police does exist so the case will move forward to trial.
More recently, the 8NewsNow I-Team reported that CCSD lawyers had directed school police to not investigate either the death or the subsequent cover-up. The reason, said school officials, was that the district wanted to leave that up to Metro, which CCSD characterized as an impartial third party.
A January 2012 report by the Las Vegas Review-Journal said Metro looked into the teenage drinking but CCSD didn’t task them with looking into the allegations of a cover-up. In May 2012, Metro spokesperson Bill Cassell told Nevada Journal the investigation was a preliminary inquiry or an “unofficial evaluation.”
Greenberg-Traurig isn’t just working on the Peterson case. According to CCSD invoice records, that law firm billed six new cases in 2013.
Even the most diligent attendee at school board meetings, however, would never know when CCSD retains private legal counsel and for which cases.
Take, for example, the cases of the Lewis Roca Rothgerber and Greenberg-Traurig law firms, which are currently under contract with CCSD’s Office of Counsel. Those contracts are for rates of compensation that were approved by the 2002 and 2005 CCSD School Boards — and for the firms of Beckley, Singleton and O’Reilly & Ferrario, attorneys of which were later absorbed by Lewis Roca and Greenberg-Traurig, respectively.
Thus any member of the public would be unable to learn how much CCSD is paying the currently retained firms — unless they somehow were able, and patient enough, to track down those original approvals and identify the hourly rates they specified — as Nevada Journal did.
Even CCSD trustees frequently don’t know what private law firms are under contract to the district.
In May of 2010, CCSD hired Littler Mendelson — which bills itself as “the largest global employment and labor law practice with more than 1,000 attorneys in over 60 offices worldwide” — to defend a lawsuit brought by the Clark County Association of School Administrator union (CCASA).
The then-president of the school board, Terri Janison, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal she was unaware the school district had hired a private law firm — let alone at $250 an hour.
As in the Peterson case and as with other cases handed over to private law firms, CCSD never placed the CCASA case on any board agenda. The engagement letter used by the district legal department had been entered into 13 years earlier, in 1997. Later, the 2003 school board raised Littler Mendelson’s hourly rate from $170 to $250 an hour.
According to TransparentNevada — which posts CCSD payment records known as “school warrants” — CCSD paid the firm nearly $30,000 in 2010. But since the warrant information does not specify the case, just how many cases Littler Mendelson was handling remains unknown.
Over the past year, using that same 1997 agreement, current school board trustees have approved over $63,800 in payments to Littler Mendelson, again with no agenda item indicating retention of the firm’s services. Federal court records, however, indicate the law firm currently represents the district in at least one lawsuit brought by a whistleblower who alleges CCSD retaliated against and demoted her for reporting an administrator’s surreptitious recording of staff and students.
The Clark County School District also racks up legal expenses defending its officials against ethics charges. Just how many tax dollars go to defend which official, however, is something the district refuses to reveal. Such amounts, say district officials, fall under “attorney-client” privilege.
When separate Ethics Commission cases were pending against School Board Trustee Carolyn Edwards and Associate Superintendent Joyce Haldeman last October, Nevada Journal requested from CCSD the law firm billing invoices.
In the documents provided by district officials, however, CCSD employees even redacted the case name. That made it unclear how much money went to defending Edwards and how much went to defending Haldeman. When subsequently asked for the separate totals, Kirsten Searer, Chief of Staff and External Relations for CCSD replied, “We have provided all of the documents responsive to your request [the redacted documents] and have no further comment.”
By November 2013, the school district had amassed over $21,000 in legal fees and costs with the Hutchison & Steffen law firm to defend against the ethics charges. But conflicting information was circulating as to who exactly the law firm represented. Once again, no items had been placed on the school board’s agenda to hire the law firm.
While school district officials were contending that the firm represented both Edwards and Haldeman, other sources provided a different account.
The executive director for the Nevada Commission on Ethics, for example, told Nevada Journal in multiple interviews that it was CCSD’s in-house attorneys who represented Haldeman and final processing of that settlement had been placed on the back burner, pending completion of the Edwards’ proceedings. The Haldeman matter, indicated Executive Director Caren Cafferata-Jenkins, had been in settlement discussions right from the beginning.
Moreover, the district’s initial engagement agreement with Hutchison & Steffen, made in July, said the firm would represent CCSD “in a hearing” before the ethics commission. Only Edwards had a hearing, because only she challenged the complaint.
The agreement that the head of CCSD’s Office of General Counsel, Carlos McDade, made with Hutchison & Steffen ignored Nevada law, which requires the board to set the rate of compensation.
It was not until mid-November, four months later and one week before Haldeman and Edwards settled with the Ethics Commission, that McDade asked trustees to set the rate. They did, at $330 an hour.
In their settlements, Haldeman and Edwards admitted to “non-willful” violations of Nevada’s ethics laws.
Those pleas were possible because of bill language that Mark Hutchison, as a state senator, had himself sponsored during the 2013 Nevada Legislature, earlier that year.
While a citizen filed ethics complaints against Edwards and Haldeman in February 2013, it was March 15, 2013 when the new language was first introduced and referred to the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections committee. The language — eventually amended into another bill that became law — requires the Ethics Commission to now apply a
mitigating-factors-analysis test, whenever an ethics violation has been determined.
Asked about any possible conflict between his role as a lawyer representing clients, a state senator and a former member of the Ethics Commission, Hutchison responded that Nevada’s is a citizen legislature where “individual legislators may continue their own professional pursuits while serving in the legislature.” He also cited the late Bill Raggio’s dual role as a gaming lawyer and a state senator.
When Hutchison was representing Edwards at a September hearing on a motion for summary resolution, which his firm had introduced, he also briefed commissioners on the new provision of law he had sponsored.
Commissioners, however, denied any summary judgment, and Edwards’ case then was slated for an evidentiary hearing — which it never went to, because Edwards and CCSD settled.
The final cost to taxpayers for Hutchison & Steffen’s services was $33,000. Next school year, CCSD’s Open Book budget tool indicates that the Office of General Counsel is scheduled to receive a $335,285 budgetary increase — of which $300,000 is slated to increase the budget for outside legal services to $800,000.
Part of that increase will pay for a board-approved raise to $330 an hour for Mark Ferrario, a Greenberg-Traurig attorney who is defending the district in the Peterson case.
The board approved that raise at that same meeting that it approved the rate for the Hutchison & Steffens firm.
Nevada Journal asked the school district and Board President Erin Cranor, asking for comment and for answers to questions, including the following: —Why is the legal department spending so much on outside law firms? —What is in-house counsel doing that prevents them from working on these cases? —Are there any plans to reduce future expenditures? —Why are these law firm expenditures not presented at board meetings?
Neither has responded.