Invoices show Clay County spent more than $902,000 on outside legal help last year

CLAY COUNTY, Mo. – FOX4 Problem Solvers have uncovered new invoices in Clay County for outside legal help, and Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte calls the total spent "insane."

Based on invoices FOX4 obtained, Clay County spent $902,019 in 2018 on outside attorneys and lobbying firms. When FOX4 showed Nolte the figure, he said, “that sounds about the ballpark where I’m in when I do my math on it. It's insane.”

Nolte said that number is at least seven times what was spent just three years ago.

“We need to be able to have competent legal counsel, but this seems to be some sort of a lawyer's full employment act," he said. "We don't need to hire every law firm in the state.”

The county paid seven different firms; Husch Blackwell was one of them. Back in September, the firm billed Clay County $11,132.50 for two out-of-town attorneys to attend two days of meetings on July 18, 2018, and July 20, 2018.

"It's hard for me to believe that there are no attorneys within the Kansas City area capable of handling Clay County legal affairs, particularly since Husch Blackwell has, I believe, 150 attorneys here in this area," Nolte said. "Why we need to pay tens of thousands of dollars in travel time for attorneys to just be here is a question that I don't have an answer to."

The county also paid $136,448 in 2018 to Gilmore Bell, the law firm handling the legal work for the county's $52 million bond package.

Remember, just last year, three Clay County leaders got big raises after the county clerk had to let two employees go. Law enforcement also saw big budget cuts.

“How much would we be able to put into the sheriff's department whose budget has already been, I think, shortchanged dramatically over the recent years?” Nolte asked.

Questionable spending is something the Missouri State Auditor has been trying to investigate despite what Nicole Galloway calls “roadblocks, delays, evasive responses.”

The county filed lawsuit to block the state audit, claiming her requests are invasive, confidential, and that giving the information would put taxpayers in a “disastrous legal position.”

“I don't support the lawsuit, and I don't support the actions that are currently being taken," Nolte said. "One of the things I find it very concerning is the communications coming from the county seem to imply there's unanimity on that issue, and there is not.”

FOX4 asked Nolte why so many outside legal firms? Why so much money?

“You'd have to ask the people responsible for doing it," he said. "They would be able to tell you what their motives are and what is the reason for these dramatic increases.”

FOX4 hasn’t heard back from the county’s designated media spokesperson.

Besides the spending on outside legal help, Nolte is concerned about other things the commission has done, like cutting public comment out of meetings and removing dissenting opinions from ordinances. So if a commissioner votes no, a citizen can’t read why.

Nolte provided to FOX4 three statements regarding the situation in Clay County.

In his first statement, Nolte said he is deeply concerned about several official communications from Clay County on the 2019 Missouri State Audit of Clay County and subsequent legal actions. SEE HERE

In another statement Nolte says the purpose of the audit is to promote the efficient and effective managemetn of public funds an dprograms for the benefit of the citizens of Clay County. SEE HERE

In a third statement, Nolte states:

"No press release, official statements or other official non-emergency communications to the press on behalf of Clay County or the Clay County Commission shall be disseminated unless all county commissioners have 24 hours to review the communication and the opportunity to submit comments or quotes."


For comparison, FOX4 reached out to two other Missouri counties, similar in structure and size to Clay County government. Read our questions and their responses below:

JASPER COUNTY:

FOX4 contacted Jasper County, which is also a first-class county and has a three-member board of county commissioners. Here are the questions we asked Presiding Commissioner Josh Bartosh:

FOX4: Clay County spent $765,571.25 in 2018 to pay outside attorneys and two lobbyists. What is your reaction?

Bartosh: Wow, that seems like an awful lot of money.

FOX4: How many outside law firms has Jasper County hired in the past year?

Bartosh: We have our own, full-time attorney. There are times when we use an outside attorney. In insurance cases, for example, but the insurance company pays for the attorney.

FOX4: How much did Jasper County spend on attorney fees in the past year?

Bartosh:  Around $50,000 for our full-time attorney.

FOX4: Does Jasper County have an outside law firm handling Missouri Sunshine Law requests?

Bartosh: No, our county clerk is the custodian of record. We will sometimes ask our attorney a question if the Sunshine Law request is out of the ordinary.

FOX4: Do you, as Jasper County Presiding Commissioner, have to submit open records request for information?

Bartosh: No.

FOX4: Do you think it's a good policy to send the presiding commissioner's open record requests to an outside law firm, which then bills the county?

Bartosh: No. Why would the presiding commissioner have to file an open records request for public records?

FOX4: Has Jasper County paid the legal fees for employees charged with a crime?

Bartosh: To my knowledge no, we never have. I wouldn’t think the county would be involved in something like that. No, that’s wrong.

FOX4: Would Jasper County pay the legal fees for an employee charged with a crime?

Bartosh: No, absolutely not.

FOX4: Does Jasper County have outside lobbyists?

Bartosh: No, I don’t think that’s a necessary expenditure. The Missouri Association of Counties has a lobbyist (Clay County is not a member of the Missouri Association of Counties). We also go to our state representative or state senator when there’s an issue.

FOX4: Would Jasper County pay for the attorney to negotiate the county administrator’s contract?

Bartosh: We don’t have a county administrator. But it should be the commissioners’ job to work out a contract with that individual.

FOX4: Is it fair to compare Jasper County to Clay County? The population is 117,404 or about half the size of Clay County.

Bartosh: We all operate under the statutes.

FRANKLIN COUNTY:

FOX4 also contacted Franklin County, which is also a first-class county and has a three-member board of county commissioners. Here are the questions we asked Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker:

FOX4: Clay County spent $765,571.25 in 2018 to pay outside attorneys and two lobbyists. What is your reaction?

Brinker: That is absolutely absurd. It’s unbelievable.

FOX4: How many outside law firms has Franklin County hired in the past year?

Brinker: None that I know of.

FOX4: How much did Franklin County spend on attorney fees in the past year?

Brinker: In 2018, we spent $144,000. We’ve budgeted $144,000 for 2019. In 2017, we spent $207, 451 so we’re going in the right direction.

FOX4: Does Franklin County have an outside law firm handling Missouri Sunshine Law requests?

Brinker: No. We handle those through our staff. Our County Clerk is the custodian of record. To do that (use an outside firm to handle open records requests) is a disservice to taxpayers.

FOX4: Do you as presiding commissioner have to submit open records requests for information?

Brinker: No. That’s quite laughable. It’s unimaginable.

FOX4: Do you think it's a good policy to send the presiding commissioner's open record requests to an outside law firm, which then bills the county?

Brinker: No. That’s what I call double taxation. It’s absolutely wrong. To send a records request to an outside law firm and spend more taxpayer money is absolutely wrong.

FOX4: Has Franklin County paid the legal fees for employees charged with a crime?

Brinker: No.

FOX4: Would Franklin County pay the legal fees for an employee charged with a crime?

Brinker: No

FOX4: Does Franklin County have outside lobbyists?

Brinker: No we don’t. We like to believe that our relationship with our legislators is such that we can contact them directly. We also use the Missouri Association of Counties and the County Commissioners Associations. Those services are provided through our memberships.

At one time, we paid $20,000 to a lobbyist to help us get a municipal court. But that’s the most I know of in this county. We have a great relationship with lawmakers.

FOX4: Would Franklin County pay for the attorney to negotiate the county administrator’s contract?

Brinker: We don’t have a county commissioner

FOX4: Is it fair to compare Franklin County to Clay County? The population is 101,492 or about half the size of Clay County.

Brinker: Yes, we are both one of 14 first class non-charter counties in Missouri. We utilize our first-class counties (as a resource) for things we’re considering. It’s great to have those resources. But some of the practices you’re telling me about in Clay County are not practices we’re going to use in Franklin County. Let me also say that we are really confident in Jerry’s Nolte’s ability and are sympathetic to his cause.

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.