Sunday, March 22, 2015

Invoices for Legal Services at Fox C-6 Still Difficult to Obtain!

This past Wednesday I testified in front of the Senate Education Committee in Jefferson City in support of a Senate Bill related to the amount of money that school districts are doling out in legal fees in our state.

I was invited to come and speak in front of the Senate Education Committee because of all the information that I've documented on this blog over the past several years including the amount of money spent in legal fees by the district. I still don't know exactly what the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees were spent on because the District still hasn't provided copies of the invoices for legal fees in more than 5 years of requests.

I was also asked to share our experience about having Fox's former law firm file for Due Process against us. The district filed for Due Process against us because the attorneys wanted to make sure that things were settled once and for all. There was no reason to file for Due Process against us. The district had already made their decision. We had to file Due Process in order to challenge the district's decision.

This practice of filing Due Process against parents by law firms has been occurring across our state for quite some time.

The school district of the parents that were responsible for sponsoring the senate bill had their district file for Due Process against their child AFTER they had withdrawn their child from the school district. The district wanted to document that their decision not to provide special services to the child was correct. That should certainly raised some red flags!

The school district filed an insurance claim for $30,000 with Missouri United School Insurance Council (MUSIC) in to pay for the Due Process that was filed against their child. The district's legal counsel were the ones benefiting from the Due Process. The parents have spent more than $10,000 in legal fees related to their case. You should note who sits on MUSIC's Board of Directors.

This was the same tactic that Fox's former legal counsel used when they filed for Due Process against us when they learned from ED OCR that we were we were considering dropping our request for Due Process. We decided to drop our request for Due Process after learning that the hearing office chosen to hear our case was a former law associate of the district's legal counsel. There was no way that we were going to get a "fair and impartial" hearing. There was the appearance of a fair and impartial hearing. It was a very nicely played "smoke and mirrors" of a Due Process Hearing.

Traveling to Jefferson City also gave me the opportunity to see invoices for legal services that were billed to another school district by the same law firm that represent Fox C-6 until last year after the internet scandal became public.

The parent from another school district had been provided with 88 pages of invoices for FREE after making a Sunshine Request for the invoices which spanned roughly a two year period. None of the pages in invoices for legal services were redacted. They were public records!

The really interesting thing about the invoices was the amount of detail that they contained. The invoices contained time on task billed in tenths of an hour as well as the hourly rates that each of the attorneys and law clerks charged the school district. Those rates varied between $130 and $285 per hour.

I was told that the detail contained in the invoices for legal services is what led to the resignation ("early retirement") of the superintendent and CFO in their school district.

Could having all of that detail in the invoices for legal fees be why it's been so difficult to obtain copies of the invoices for legal fees from the Fox C-6 School District?

I've made numerous Sunshine Requests to Fox over the past 5+ years for the invoices for legal fees and I still haven't been provided with a single copy of an invoice in all of that time.

I most recently made request for copies of the invoices for legal fees on September 12, 2014 along with a request for other documents. I received a response letter on September 18, 2014 from Fox's former custodian of records Deborah Davis telling me that my Sunshine Request would take more then 3 days to fill.

It's now been more than 6 months and I still haven't received any copies of the invoices for legal fees. I received several other documents from my request and even documents from other requests sent since then. However, those invoices for legal fees have yet to be provided. Why is that?

Here is the list of documents that I requested via Sunshine Law on September 12, 2014:

Documents Requested:
  • Electronic copies of all Fox C-6 DISCOVER credit card statements for the 2005-2006 to 2012-2013 school years to present.
  • Electronic copies of all Fox C-6 AMERICAN EXPRESS credit card statements for the 2005-2006 to 2012-2013 school years.
  • Electronic copies of all Fox C-6 VISA credit card statements for the 2005-2006 to 2008-2009 school years to present.
  • Electronic copies of all receipts that were purchased using Petty Cash since the 2005-2006 school year to present for personal related items for Dianne Brown-Critchlow.
  • Electronic copies of all invoices from the Mickes Goldman O'Toole law firm for the 2007-2008 school years to present. When redacting the invoices from the law firm please ensure that only names are redacted and that the descriptions or purpose of the legal fees incurred remain on the invoices. I previously made a similar request years ago and was informed that the district did not receive detailed billing.
  • Electronic copies of any and all receipts associated with purchases made by former Superintendent Dianne Brown-Critchlow using ANY district credit card since it has been determined that she borrowed or used credit cards assigned to other people within the district.
  • Electronic list of all items recovered to date from former Superintendent Dianne Brown-Critchlow.
After not receiving copies of the invoices for legal fees for more than 3 months, I sent a follow up on January 7, 2015 asking about the invoices for legal fees.

Fox's CFO John Brazeal responded to my request the very same day. Below is an excerpt of Mr. Brazeal's response to my request for copies of the invoices:

Record Request: 
The data to supply your request for “legal fees paid by year” was compiled by taking information from the ASBR reports filed with DESE. These annual reports are available online. Minimal time was required to compile that information for you. 
A request for copies of MGO legal invoices back to 2008 creates a time consuming task. As evidenced by the passage of time, we have been unable to fill your request. This is due to several factors, which include being able to locate old invoices (if they even exist) while simultaneously tending to the document production demands of the state audit and many other Sunshine requests, let alone the daily workload of an organization under stress. 
Which brings me to my point: As you know, there is law and policy regarding Sunshine requests. Policy (in conformance with law) provides that we respond appropriately to record requests in a timely manner, allows for charges related to copying and research time, and allows for charges to be waived when requests are in the public interest. I believe I have provided you many records in a timely manner and up until now, all were provided without charge. The “legal fees paid by year” was provided without charge because it was already available online, but still I spent the time to collect the data. Whether you realize this fact or not, your many requests absorb a significant amount of staff time to fulfill. 
Believe it or not, not all your requests rise to the level of public interest, in my opinion. Some requests appear to have more of a personal interest, which is the purpose of the charge for production when such requests become voluminous. At the moment, I am not seeing the public interest in compiling “legal fees paid by month” for three years in the distant past when “legal fees paid by year” is readily accessible. And to some extent, I am not seeing the public interest in legal invoices from years distant past. Please share your thoughts on the basis of public interest for your request. After I have had an opportunity to consider you input, I will respond with a determination on whether charges will apply. 
I have previously written to you my view of transparency in the public interest. I retain that viewpoint.

Transparency is something that is still a work in progress at Fox. I think it's reasonable for the public to know why the district spent more than $659,000 in legal fees between 2007 and 2013.

I also think it's reasonable for copies of those invoices to be provided to the public because they explain why the district spent so much money in legal fees. They are public records and if they can provide them to parents/patrons in other school districts, it seems reasonable that they would be able to provide them to the public in our school district.

Below is a compilation of the amount of money paid to Fox's former law firm between 2004 and 2013. The information was compiled from data sent to me by CFO John Brazeal for the 2004-2010 school years. The totals for legal fees from 2010 to 2013 was obtained from board packets and the bill payments posted in the board packets.

Fox C-6 Legal Bills 2004-2013
2004-2005 -   $21,906.50
2005-2006 -   $39,218.86
2006-2007 -   $45,929.39
2007-2008 -   $74,560.41
2008-2009 - $109,116.49
2009-2010 -   $71,083.37
2010-2011 - $100,342.74
2011-2012 -   $81,029.43
2012-2013 - $148,903.30