Class action, costumed

The Madison County Record Sep. 16, 2007, 9:20am

What's the best way to disguise from a city's taxpayers that they are volunteer put-up plaintiffs in a trial lawyer-concocted class action lawsuit?

Don't call it a class action lawsuit.

That's what apparently happened in Fairview Heights, a Metro-East suburb currently the reluctant client of ex-Lakin Law Firm ace Richard Burke.

He's taking on a good portion of America's e-travel industry on Fairview Heights' behalf, "authorized" by a 2005 city council resolution directing city lawyers to initiate "any necessary legal action on behalf of itself and other similarly-situated Illinois taxing authorities to recover any and all unpaid taxes."

That's lawyer-speak for "class action." But Burke and city attorneys, mindful of how the public sees class action lawsuits, oft-carefully crafted to enrich lawyers with millions while offering plaintiffs but a victory pat on the back, took care not to include those touchy two words.

And lest the aldermen notice to what they had agreed, their new lawyers also didn't waste much time. A day after the resolution passed, we now know, Burke and his cohorts sprinted to the St. Clair County courthouse to file suit for Fairview Heights, making it the leader of a statewide class action suit alleging companies like Orbitz, Hotwire, Expedia and Priceline cheated tens of Illinois cities out of hotel taxes.

The resolution itself was revealed to The Record by City Attorney Al Paulson this past week, after city aldermen complained they were never told Fairview Heights was volunteering as the plaintiff in Mr. Burke's class action.

They were told and they agreed to the resolution, argued Paulson.

Or, not exactly.

If this whole episode strikes you as unseemly or distasteful, that's because it should.

From the sequence of events, it sure looks like these lawyers conceived this class action lawsuit, one that pitted hotel-taxing municipalities against travel e-tailers we know and love, themselves, and on spec. They then went hunting for a willing, or lawyer-less, city council to carry it for them.

Fairview Heights proved a worthy mark. It mustn't remain one.

An attorney-client relationship is at will; it isn't supposed to resemble a hostage situation. If Burke, Paulson and their cohorts used sleight of hand to make Fairview Heights a class action plaintiff, city aldermen should be firm and direct in showing them the door.

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