Mounting legal fees were a big issue in the Twin Rivers Unified School District board elections last June. It turns out that board challengers who criticized the high cost of litigation at Twin Rivers had very good reason to do so. An audit commissioned by the Twin Rivers board of trustees last fall has found strong evidence of questionable billing.
Between 2007 and 2012, Twin Rivers paid out more than $10 million in legal fees to its former outside counsel, Timothy M. Cary & Associates of Cameron Park. Soon after a new board majority took over, the Cary firm was dismissed and board members voted to hire an auditing firm to review Cary's billings.
Among other things auditors found that the district's former law firm charged $225 an hour for legal services provided by a lawyer not authorized to practice in California, used relatively inexperienced lawyers for about a third of its services and submitted bills that were vague and in some cases appear to be grossly inflated.
The audit wasn't made public. The Bee obtained a copy and it is unclear when, and if, the Twin Rivers board might release a public copy.
While there may be personnel information in the audit that would make it inappropriate to release in complete form, the board should at least release a summary of the findings, and make more of a sustained effort to be transparent about all of its decisions.
In the wake of the audit, the Twin Rivers board must decide how to proceed. It is not an easy decision. If the board elects to sue its former law firm for overbilling as tempting as that might be it risks setting off yet another round of costly litigation.
To guard against pouring more good money after bad, the board needs to perform a rigorous cost-benefit analysis first. Obvious questions need to be asked. How much will it cost to go after alleged overpayments? What is the likelihood that the district would prevail?
And, even if it prevails, what are the realistic chances that it would collect overpayments and how much exactly? Would it be enough to cover the cost of litigation?
Beyond grievances against its old law firm, the board needs to more carefully weigh the cost of all litigation against potential benefits.
A 2011 Sacramento County grand jury report rightly faulted Twin Rivers' excessive litigation, specifically for things like suing retiring administrators of the districts it succeeded for taking their old laptops or improperly disposing of surplus equipment, small matters that wasted money and time and made the district look petty. One way to guard against overbilling by law firms is to stop filing frivolous lawsuits.
Finally, if Twin Rivers wants to reduce litigation costs, it should dismantle its deeply troubled police force. A good percentage of all the legal fees billed to the district involved its police. The district has proved time and time again that it is ill-suited to run a modern law enforcement agency.
If the board continues to hold on to its Police Department, litigation costs at Twin Rivers are sure to rise in the future.