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Shreveport legal contracting invites too much abuse

An issue hardly heard about in the campaigns for city offices in Shreveport, particularly relevant to the mayor's contest, concerns contracting for legal services by the city. It’s not so much that lawyers give money and may get city contracts in return, it’s the necessity or desirability of having those contracts in the first place.

Shreveport’s always been known as a soft touch when it comes to extracting money from it by way of lawsuit, but that might actually be improving. Sued 3,673 between 2005 and 2009, the rate has dropped in that period from 736 in 2005 to 293 in 2009. (These figures are reported by the Shreveport Times, which would seem to imply that 2,644 suits were filed between 2006-2008, seeming somewhat inconsistent with this pair of separately reported annual totals. Also, The TimesDatacenter” lists only 520 cases during these years that were initiated and/or concluded.) Of these, three-eighths resulted in payouts of around $12.1 million with many still pending.

While it would seem this is progress in reducing the perception that Shreveport is a slot machine willing to pay off, it paid out $8 million to outside counsel over that period, Many governments use outside counsel sparingly in these situations, which are in addition to the roughly (using budgeted 2010 figures) $1.1 million allocated to the City Attorney’s office (which also handles suits the city itself initiates). Fortunately, this cost also has been coming down from $2 million in 2005 to $1.2 million in 2009. This would call into question -- $20 million paid out in five years for cases dealt with outside counsel – whether it’s a cost effective practice.

Actually, it’s not that big of a deal that contract winners over that time span – in a couple of cases, going over a million dollars – gave money to politicians. For example, former city attorney and Caddo Parish Attorney Dannye Malone’s firm has given political candidates in that time $9,300 while he got $1.2 million from city contracts. If it were as simple as that, any moderately successful lawyer in town could get his hands on that kind of scratch in an instant and pay to play.

(The Times reported only those amounts traceable to a firm or firm’s principles, which doesn’t mean other firm lawyers didn’t contribute nor family members of firm principles and members didn’t contribute. Still, the state’s campaign finance laws limit maximum donation per election per candidate to $2,500 for mayor and $1,000 for city council, so that tends to dampen the role money could play.)

Really what determines the distribution of this kind of work is part competence, but part political allegiance and familiarity. In the case of Malone, for example, his longtime political appointments not only give him familiarity with the areas of law in question, but with the people and political forces involved, giving him quite a leg up for any business. Also note that there are checks and balances, such as review committees and City Council approval for contracts.

So you could buy all the arguments supporting the notion of extensive outsourcing of city legal work – these lawyers do an effective job, campaign contributions don’t influence such decisions, it costs about the same as if it were in-house, checks and balances apply – but that still leaves two considerations that support drastically downsizing this Shreveport tendency.

One, favorites do get played. Only those lawyers with some political connections and whose firms are large enough to handle the business get the work. There’s nothing illegal or sinister about this and they may provide great service, but it does point out that not many in the private sector will get the chance to be part of this. It’s bad policy to have government picking and choosing select beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse, even when they work for it, when it could be done just as well, by all indications, by city legal staff. After all, most of these cases do not involve esoteric areas of law.

Two, the campaign connection may be the reverse. That is, some firms and lawyers may feel they have to contribute in order to play so it would really be more politicians than lawyers benefitting from this system. It’s a bit disconcerting, for example, that in less than four years current Mayor Cedric Glover has gotten almost twice as much in identifiable contributions from firms and individuals that got city business than did his predecessor Keith Hightower for eight years when under Hightower much more was being contracted out. Glover also got nearly as much from lawyers and firms that did not get city contracts, but perhaps they felt they should give to have a chance to get a job.

This is not to say Glover is going out strong-arming lawyers presenting them visions of letting contracts to cough up campaign cash for him. But an implicit and subconscious thought encouraged by the existing situation may entice those wanting city business to fork it over to Glover and anybody else they think might help them land business, without a word ever spoken by any party. It’s a potential money pipeline that ought not to be there for politicians.

For these two reasons, widespread contracting of legal services for Shreveport neither is advisable nor justifiable. Hire more city attorneys if necessary, but leave contracting only to the most unusual or arcane instances where legal expertise is needed.

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