The Lawyers Always Win

“The civil service is under greater assault than at any time since reforms of the eighteen-eighties.”

Fiona Hill, a coal miner’s daughter from northern England, earned master’s and PhD degrees in history from Harvard University. She became a U.S. citizen in 2002. Hill worked in the research department at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and as a national intelligence analyst for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. She was was an intelligence analyst under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Early in 2017 the current occupant of the White House appointed Dr. Hill to the National Security Council as Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs. She served in that position until she resigned in July, 2019.

Responding to a subpoena from the House Intelligence Committee, Fiona Hill testified for ten hours in a closed-door hearing on October 14, 2019 as part of the impeachment inquiry. She testified publicly before the same body on November 21, 2019. For her trouble, she received insults from the president, death threats from his supporters and six-figure bills from attorneys. Those who supposedly know estimate her legal fees at somewhere between four hundred and five hundred thousand dollars.

Other State Department career employees who provided such riveting testimony during the House impeachment hearings face similar lawyers’ fees.

The State Department announced that it will provide relief to its employees. The Department will cover attorney’s fees of $300 per hour up to 120 hours a month – $36,000.

Partners at top firms experienced in these matters charge up to $1,200 per hour, “associates” $800 or so. When one needs to engage a team of lawyers, well, it gets expensive.

The American Foreign Service Association, the union representing State Department employees, has set up a legal-defense fund. So far a bit more than $250,000 has been donated. Some public-spirited attorneys from both political parties are working for reduced fees and, in some cases pro bono. The lead lawyer for Marie Yovanovitch, former Ambassador to Ukraine, said, “Unless you’re a full-time public-interest lawyer, you get only a few chances to take cases that you strongly believe in. I took the case because this is why I went to law school.”

Lawyers 1,055 – Clients 145

To get paid in full, people like Tesoro would have had to take him to court, an expensive, risky, and hassle-inducing prospect.

The current occupant of the White House’s business modus operandi used fear of bankruptcy-by-attorneys as a cudgel. For example, in 2006, architect Andrew Tesoro submitted his final bill to the Trump Organization for his work on the clubhouse at the National Golf Club Westchester: $140,000. He was offered $50,000. Wanting to avoid legal hassle and expense, he sent a revised billing for $50,000. When that went unpaid, Tesoro contacted The Donald himself who said he would pay $25,000. Knowing that legal action to collect would cost much more, Tesoro took it, 18% of the billed amount, less than what he owed the consultants who had worked with him on the project.

A local news report tells of a couple in Rohnert Park California who were successful in their suit against the city. Police officers had entered Raul and Elva Barajas’s house, with guns drawn, looking for their son who was on parole.

Unfortunately for the city and its police force, they neglected to get a warrant for the search.

A federal court rendered its judgement against the city of Rohnert Park: $1.2 million. Mr. and Mrs. Barajas couple were awarded $75,000 damages and an additional $70,000 punitive damages. Their attorneys got… well, you can do the arithmetic.

The lawyers always win.

Santa Rosa Update

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it had removed household hazardous waste from 5,500 properties in Napa and Sonoma counties, three-quarters of those destroyed or damaged by fire.

Sonoma County has begun process of adjusting tax assessments. The Assessor’s office was not damaged, but was closed for several days because of mandatory evacuation. Fortunately, aerial views simplify assessing properties that have been reduced to ash. Others, in rural areas or suffering partial losses, require on-site inspections and will take longer. The fires occurred the same time tax bills were being prepared. Tax revenue will obviously be lower; the real hit may come next year. The city of Santa Rosa estimates it has lost a third of its tax base.

The California Insurance Commissioner estimated insured losses will exceed $3 billion. Rebuilding costs will be high. Property owners will need to decide to rebuild exactly as what was lost, with required code upgrades, or to make changes. Shortages of contractors, construction labor and basic building materials will drive up costs. Renters, in what was already an extremely tight market, face uncertainty about what their landlords will do. Many will leave the area to find employment and housing, likely to not return.

Who is coming to Santa Rosa? Lawyers, swarms of lawyers, from all around the country. Although the cause of the fire has yet to be determined, law firms, eager to sue Pacific Gas & Electric, are invading Santa Rosa. As a former resident of Santa Rosa once said to journalists sleuthing the Watergate story, “Follow the money.” The giant utility PG&E has deep pockets and of course, is widely disliked. Sparks from power lines downed by high winds are one possible cause of the fires. The attorneys aren’t waiting; they’re advertising on billboards and TV, and setting up town-hall style meeting for prospective clients. And if PG&E lawsuits don’t work out, there’ll be plenty of other generally loathed, big-money targets to sue: insurance companies.