In a second attempt, city attorney’s billings are released

Former City Attorney James Allen




By Charles Sercombe

          In 2012 The Review published a portion of billings from the city’s largest contractors, except one: City Attorney James Allen.

          At the time, Allen denied a Freedom of Information Act request from The Review for a copy of his billings to the city. He denied the request on the basis that releasing the information would violate the attorney-client privilege.

          “Each of the invoices contains information that pertains to confidential communications that the City Attorney and members of his staff have with city officials in the performance of their official duties,” Allen said in his letter denying the request.

          Allen’s tenure as city attorney came to an abrupt halt when Emergency Manager Cathy Square took control of the city on July 1. One of her first actions was firing Allen’s law firm and hiring a new city attorney.

          The Review submitted another FOIA request in December, and this time Allen’s billings for 2011 and 2012 were released.

          But, Allen was allowed to black out, or redact, billings that he said were protected information.

          Over 1,000 pages of billings were given to The Review, weighing nearly 13 pounds in total.

          A number of line items were indeed blacked out, but the vast majority of the billings were untouched.

          Allen did not return a call to comment on why so many of the billings were not redacted.

          In his initial letter denying the FOIA request, Allen said many of the billings are more than just an explanation of what is being billed.

          Instead, he characterized them as “mental impressions and work product of members of the city’s law firm.”

          In a review of the billings, it was not immediately clear where such impressions were. Instead, the billings recounted mostly mundane chores, such as who he talked on the phone with and who he emailed.

          No task was too small to bill. Read and answer an email? He billed the city $30 for that in one instance.

          Attend a four-hour council meeting? That cost nearly $600.

          Much of the billings were to justify the city’s retainer fee of $6,500 a month. But there was plenty of work done outside the duties of the retainer, which ended up costing over $300,000 a year.

          Some of the billings appeared to deal with issues not directly involving Hamtramck, such as one for Nov. 10, 2011 in which one of the attorneys in Allen’s law firm spent time on “extensive research” on the resignation of State Rep. Tim Melton and how it was “accepted” by the House of Representatives.

          Melton was a Democratic lawmaker from Auburn Hills and resigned to take a job in California.

          That research cost the city $107.96.

          The issue of withholding the billings had been something former City Councilmember Cathy Gordon brought up at meetings. She didn’t buy Allen’s claim of attorney-client privilege.

          “The people are the client and they have a right to know,” Gordon said in a telephone interview with The Review.

          Gordon, who was a frequent critic of Allen, said Allen’s stance had more to do with what role he thought he played in the city.

          “I think he used his power as city attorney to give whatever line of crap knowing the council would go with it,” she said.

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