By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The town was billed $74,243.43 for legal work done by Whelan, Corrente, Flanders, Kinder and Siket for the months of December 2017 and January 2018. The law firm was hired last August to help with labor issues, particularly relating to the firefighter union. Their previous bill, for work down through Nov. 30, was for $104,000.
The bills (find them here: Whelan Corrente Flanders Kinder Siket Jan, Feb 2018 invoices) break down into six categories: labor, school-related issues, ethics complaint, a lawsuit filed by a firefighter against Council President Sue Cienki and the town), injured-on-duty claims, and grievances, with the bulk of the work being done on labor and the ethics complaint.
In December, Whelan, Corrente billed $35,029.66 for labor-related work, listing five different lawyers, including lead labor lawyer Tim Cavazza and EG resident Robert Flanders (a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate). In January, the firm billed $11,552 for labor work.
The single biggest day for labor-related work by the firm was Dec. 4, 2017, on which the law firm billed nearly 27 hours.
The date coincides with negotiations that led to a tentative agreement between the town and firefighters in which the firefighters restored the floater position – blamed by Town Manager Gayle Corrigan as the reason for high overtime costs – in exchange for the town taking the 56-hour work week off the table. Before that agreement was signed, however, the council authorized a lawsuit against the firefighters to determine the legality of the 56-hour work week. Firefighters say the town abandoned the tentative agreement; town officials say the firefighters didn’t sign it.
According to Whelan, Corrente’s “letter of engagement” (i.e. contract) with the town, the firm is charging $250 an hour (a reduced rate). However, the average rate for labor work of the two months was $274 an hour.
Work on an ethics complaint, presumably one filed against Corrigan for hiring business partner Linda Dykeman as town finance director, totaled more than 71 hours, for a total of $20,198. The average hourly rate for the ethics work was $283 an hour.
The law firm billed the town $4,292 in January for legal work on firefighter David Gorman’s lawsuit against the town and Council President Sue Cienki. The average rate for that work was $320 an hour.
It also billed $850 for “school department matters,” $125 for injured on duty claims, and $150 for work on labor grievances.
In its letter of engagement, Whelan, Corrente said it would bill monthly, and indeed the bills produced by the town this week are dated Jan. 18 (for work done in December) and Feb. 21 (for January). However, in March the town denied having any such bills in response to Access to Public Records Act (APRA) requests and in April and May, it delayed as long as legally possible in producing the documents.
The town responded to a request from EG News on March 28, “There are currently no documents in the town’s care, custody or control for this request.”
Another request for Whelan, Corrente legal bills was made on April 17. On May 2, the town responded, “Due to additional time needed to review the responsive documents you have requested, the Town Manager has requested an additional twenty (20) day extension for this request. The new due date is May 30th (with May 28th being a holiday).“
On May 30, the town released the December and January legal bills, four months and three months respectively after they were posted by Whelan, Corrente.
After the Town Council meeting Wednesday, President Cienki said the bills were a surprise to her. She said until recently she hadn’t realized how much the town was spending for extra legal work.
In April, Cienki said the firm must not have done work for the town if there were no bills.
“They bill monthly,” she said during a Town Council meeting April 9. “If we haven’t gotten a bill yet, then they haven’t done any work for us.”
Instead, Cienki said, Town Solicitor David D’Agostino had been doing “all the work.” D’Agostino is on retainer for the town, for a fee of $11,500 a month.
At that same meeting, Cienki said it did not bother her that the town had not received any bills from Whelan, Corrente.
“I don’t think they’ve done a substantial amount of work in the past four months. Dave has done most of our legal work. He is our municipal lawyer,” she said.
Also during the April 9 meeting, Corrigan said, “The concept is we haven’t received a bill yet. If they are behind in their billing, they are behind in their billing.”
From the dates on the bills produced Wednesday, Whelan, Corrente was not behind in their billing.
On Wednesday, Cienki said now that she knows about the bills, she has acted.
“Ok, we’ve got to slow down the cost. We don’t want to continue to have legal bills that high,” she said. “I did not know, no. I did not realize what they were.”
Still, Cienki said the legal work had to be done.
“I don’t like getting sued,” she said. “I don’t have control over that and we have to put up a vigorous defense.”
Support local news – donate to East Greenwich News! Click on the Donate button below. We can’t do it without your help.