Documents released under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request Tuesday show that attorneys who represented Fairview Heights in its four-year battle with 13 online travel companies took more than 80 percent of the total settlement.
City Attorney Al Paulson of Becker, Paulson, Hoerner & Thompson P.C. of Belleville, Richard Burke of St. Louis and the Chicago firm of Freed and Weiss were to share $226,934.75 of a $315,000 settlement, according to the documents.
In addition, Paulson’s firm and Freed and Weiss claimed $31,331.57 in expenses.
In total, Fairview Heights received $56,733.68, which is about 18 percent of the total monies derived from the litigation.
According to an itemized list of expenses, fees claimed include an $857.69 expenditure for airline tickets and travel expenses for Paulson to attend the Illinois Municipal League Lawyers Conference on Feb. 15, 2008 in Chicago. Another $200 travel expense is listed for Paulson and attorney Brian Kreisler to attend a meeting in Chicago the same date.
Fairview Heights Mayor Gail Mitchell has previously said in interviews that he was pleased with the outcome.
Mitchell was out of the office on Tuesday afternoon, according to city personnel. A message seeking comment from Mitchell had not been returned by press time. Messages were left for Mitchell Wednesday and Thursday as well and had not been returned as Thursday afternoon.
Aldermen Pat Baeske and Bonnie Crossley declined to comment on the settlement division when reached Wednesday although Crossley said she was going to look into the matter.
The Record first asked for the settlement agreements in May. The paper then requested attorney fee documents because the settlement documents did not make it clear what, if anything, lawyers received from pursuing the claims.
The Record’s first FOIA related to the documents was delivered to the city June 8. That request was denied six days later.
In the denial letter sent by Fairview Heights City Clerk Joseph Kassly Jr., Kassly wrote that, after speaking with Paulson about the FOIA, Paulson had informed him the bills were exempt because they could contain “personnel matters.”
However, the city failed to cite the FOIA statute and statutory exemption claimed for denying the bills as is required by law.
The Record filed another FOIA with the city seeking the documents July 16 after the city failed to list the claimed exemptions, despite repeated requests by a Record reporter.
Legal bills, when generated by a public body or its attorneys are not by their nature exempt from release by public bodies under Illinois law. There are certain legal exemptions for them such as the “pending litigation” exemption.
If a document contains both exempt and non-exempt materials, then the city is legally required to redact the exempt material and release the rest.
The documents were mailed to the Record’s Edwardsville office July 23 and received on the 28th.
The documents include a copy of the check for $56,733.68 issued to the city from Paulson’s firm. There is a “settlement statement,” settlement agreements and a break-down of the attorneys’ hours and costs.
According to the documents, it appears the attorneys from Freed and Weiss spent about 702 hours on the case and their firm’s staff spent 1,364 hours. Freed and Weiss submitted $12,800.46 in expenses.
Burke spent 1,450 hours on the case, but he did not claim expenses. Paulson’s firm incurred costs of $18,531.11 and spent 1,020 hours working on the suits.
The bottom of the “Settlement Statement” document includes the line “Fairview Heights to receive 20% or $56,733.68 … 80% to attorneys’ fees.” The legend at the top of the page reads “07-23-2009 11:28 FROM-BECKER PAULSON” and appears to have been prepared by the firm.
Fairview Heights sued the travel companies over what it claimed were back hotel-motel room taxes. When the battle began in 2004, the city intended to act as standard bearer in a class action suit on behalf of other Illinois municipalities.
The suit failed to gain class certification when it was moved to federal court by defendants like Orbitz, Priceline.com, Hotels.com, Travelocity and others.
Fairview Heights pursued the suits as individual claims. The last defendant group settled in March 2009.
During the suits’ action, some Fairview Heights aldermen expressed reservations about the cases and about how they were being kept informed of the suits’ progress. Aldermen Bonnie Crossley and Gil Klein even stated in interviews with the Record in September 2007 that they had not been aware that the city was going to lead a class action suit.
Mitchell has said in various interviews since April 2009 that he was satisfied with how the suits went but that he was unaware of how much the attorneys took away.
He has said that he believed the suits had not cost the city anything and that where the $56,700.00 in settlement money goes will be decided by the city’s finance committee and city council.
Paulson, meanwhile, was not retained by the city in a close vote May 19. Paulson blamed council politics and in particular Fairview Heights Alderman Pat Baeske for the end of his firm’s 22 year relationship with Fairview Heights. At the time, Baeske refused to comment on Paulson’s statements.
Mitchell appointed Baeske to the three alderman committee to find Paulson’s replacement July 21 at the regular city council meeting.
Paulson was not present, although he is statutorily required to continue as city attorney until another is found.
Baeske said in an interview Wednesday that she and the committee are currently conducting interviews to find Paulson’s replacement.