Counties are hiring outside attorneys to review records about hiring outside attorneys. Got it?

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In a public records fight pitting a small online news service against a group of Texas counties, the irony is rich, and the legal bills are hefty — on several fronts.

Legal Newsline, an online legal news service, is looking into how much various counties are paying outside law firms to represent them in cases against opioid manufacturers. In those suits, the counties are alleging that the companies pushed the highly addictive drugs while claiming they were safe.

But Dallas and several other counties are trying to charge the Newsline tens of thousands of dollars for the records, because the counties say that the record must first be reviewed in detail by — yes, an outside law firm. They’re making the demand despite a state law that expressly declares such information to be public.

Dallas County wants nearly $24,190 before it will hand over copies of legal bills from its opioid case. The figure includes $750 an hour for attorneys to review the records. Nacogdoches County is asking for the same amount.  

Both counties are being represented in the records fight by the firm of Simon Greenstone Panatier of Dallas.

Milam County quoted Newsline a price of $19,240 and Burnet County asked for $13,870, while Webb County turned over its records with no charge.

Legal Newsline is seeking the records to police any possible oversights or overspending of public money, similar to what happened in the case against State Street Bank in Boston, where lawyers representing public pension funds were found to have double-billed for $4 million. The online publication reports its quest in a story.

“From an economic standpoint, this is public money,” said the requestor, Dan Fisher, who formerly worked in Texas Bloomberg Business News.

Fisher said Newsline made the requests to 50 counties, “and we’re getting this profusion of different responses, from free to $25,000. And it’s an odd thing that the exact same amount was charged in Dallas County as Nacogdoches, which is much smaller.”

He said that only Travis County referred the request to the attorney general’s office without citing a cost. The county claims that releasing the billing records would “reveal client confidences and the attorneys’ legal advice regarding the legal services provided,” and “weren’t intended to be disclosed to third parties.”

“It is necessary for the attorney to document and communicate in the invoices enough detail for the client to ascertain the nature and scope of the services provided,” Assistant County Attorney Ann-Marie Sheely said in the letter to the AG.

The state in 1999 reformed the procedure for counties to hire outside attorneys, after private lawyers collected over $3 billion in fees for representing the state in tobacco cases. The state now requires municipalities to get approval from the state comptroller’s office before contracting with outside legal help. Lawmakers also capped the contingency fees for outside lawyers at 35 percent. The law states that information under the private legal contracts, including time spent, fees and expense records, are matters of public record.

When states and municipalities announced last year that they would begin to seek redress against the pharmaceutical companies that make and distribute opioids, law firms across the country came calling, seeking a piece of the defendants’ billion-dollar industry. Some counties received up to 15 presentations from lawyers. Dallas County announced its suit against several pharmaceutical companies in January, to recoup its spending on such drugs at Parkland Memorial Hospital, the county jail, and elsewhere.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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