Delaware County’s spending on outside attorneys last year totaled more than $3 million, reaching new highs for a trend that began in 2020 when Democrats took the majority on the county council.
The numbers mark a sharp divergence from 2019, the last year in which Republicans maintained a majority on the county council, where spending on outside legal help totaled $402,000.
Since then, that category of spending has skyrocketed by almost eight times as much.
2019 — $402,000
2020 — $2.2 mill.
2021 — $2.3 mill.
2022 — $3.17 mill.
When Broad + Liberty first reported on this issue looking at the jump from 2019 to 2020 spending, the county said it was affected by the pandemic as well as other one-off circumstances.
“Several significant litigation matters, along with unusual costs associated with the county-wide reassessment, the 2020 election and the organization of the new County Health Department contributed to the increase in legal costs,” county spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky said at the time.
Then, when examining the 2021 spending, the county pointed the finger at the Republicans previously in power, saying the legal spending was for “a wide ranging set of issues, most of which had not been addressed by the previous administration,” according to County Solicitor Bill Martin.
He cited acquiring the largest park in the county via eminent domain, the recent county-wide reassessment, issues associated with the Aqua takeover of the Delcora wastewater management authority, restructuring union contracts, and the de-privatization of the county jail.
When questioned this year about the $3 million tab, Martin said, “Many of the items from past years remain active. The litigation to block Aqua’s sweetheart takeover of DELCORA continues, with the litigation proceeding on multiple fronts in the PUC, Commonwealth Court and Common Pleas court. The litigation related to the multiple abuse cases brought by former residents of the Juvenile Detention Center continues. All of these cases are triggered by events which occurred prior to the time when the current County Council took office.”
Martin did not answer a question about whether this level of outside legal assistance represented a new normal, or whether the county’s legal spending might wind down to previous levels.
Joy Schwartz, a Republican running for county council this year, isn’t buying Martin’s reasoning.
“This County Council uses our own tax dollars against us, those taxpayers who dare to ask basic questions about their agenda, and the costs are staggering,” Schwartz said. “The bottom line is their policies are unpopular and expensive. When people find out about it and complain at county meetings, this council hides behind its lawyers at great expense to the taxpayer. Solicitor Martin uses county council meetings as his bully pulpit to excoriate those who have the temerity to challenge the county’s actions. Blaming his predecessors is really not a good look for Mr. Martin, but in reality, it is likely the only explanation he has to offer.”
Schwartz recently won an open records appeal that allowed her access to count mail-in ballot envelopes, after the county had originally denied her request.
Some of the spending has drawn criticism from Republicans in the county, not only for the volume. In some instances, they say, it’s the kind of spending Democrats used to portray as politically corrupt.
For example, in 2019, former County Council Chairman Brian Zidek accused Republicans of crony spending, which he labeled a “corruption tax.”
“Democrat Brian Zidek said residents’ [sic] don’t get their money’s worth from the county because of ‘no-bid contracts going to people and companies that contribute to politicians and political parties.’” according to a WHYY report from the time.
Ballard Spahr, the second largest recipient of the legal spending in 2022 was paid $426,000, a total that is higher than the total third-party attorney spending for all of 2019, the last year Republicans had the majority. Democratic Councilwoman Christine Reuther, who is seeking a second term on council this fall, is a former employee of Ballard Spahr, and the firm held a fundraiser for her in 2019.
Ballard’s chair is also the husband of Democrat Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, whose congressional Fifth District encompasses all of Delaware County. Scanlon was also “Pro Bono Counsel” for a time at the firm.
“The rhetoric around their original election, 2019 and 2020, where the incoming Democrats proclaimed that they were going to do government differently than the prior Republican administration — and yet when I look at that spending, what I see is they spent eight times more in general on legal fees than the Republicans did,” said Jeff Jones, another Republican challenger for the county council. “The question is very simple: is that really better than what the Republicans were doing for the hardworking families of Delaware County?”
The firm Duane Morris banked over a quarter of a million dollars in billings to the county, and the former chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Party, David Landau, was previously a partner there, but Martin tried to shoot that down.
“[N]ote that David Landau (the presumed “former chairman” that you referenced) is no longer a partner at Duane Morris. In fact, a review of that firm’s affiliation would demonstrate just as many prominent Republicans (e.g. William McSwaine [sic] — former state-wide Republican candidate) as Democrats,” Martin said. “An example of legal services continued from the prior administration would include Burnes White, which represented Fair Acres on significant litigation matters for years, and has continued in that role.”
Broad + Liberty pointed out that J. Manly Parks, also of Duane Morris, bills the county for election-law consulting, and that Parks’s resume includes highly partisan campaign work for Democrats such as former President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.
Martin did not address the question as to whether this could be considered a conflict.
“The solicitor’s office seeks law firms and lawyers, appropriate for each specific representation. It specifically avoids asking about, or investigating, the political contribution history of any attorney or law firm,” Martin concluded.
(Editor’s note: Martin’s quote was lightly edited mainly for spacing and punctuation. No words were added or subtracted from the quote.)
The county does, however, specifically ask about and investigate the political contribution history of virtually every other contractor in its employ. According to the Delaware County Political Contribution Disclosure Form, available on the county website, under Section 6-12 of the Administrative Code of Delaware County, “Contractors under certain Covered Contracts are required to provide this Disclosure Form in connection with consideration” for the sought after work. Section 6-12 requires outside entities hired by the county to disclose all reportable political contributions made in the prior 24 months.
Since campaign finance reports for local committees remain unavailable for public review online, Broad + Liberty also inquired as to whether any of the outside firms or attorneys hired by the county are current or previous donors to the Delaware County Democratic Party, elected members of the Delaware County Council, or other local Delaware County Democratic committees. Neither Martin, nor the county spokesperson responded to this specific inquiry.
Frank Agovino, chair of the county Republicans, blasted the county’s response.
“The county administration’s claim that contracts such as these do not benefit the politically connected is preposterous on its face. The attorneys hired by the county are a who’s who of Democratic Party donors, officials, appointees and activists. However, more preposterous is that this fits a larger, irresponsible pattern of spending that is bound to result in double digit tax increases for Delco families who are already being crushed by high property taxes and inflation.”
As for 2023, the county now faces a number of lawsuits from former employees.
As Broad + Liberty was first to report in April, the county’s former assistant director of labor relations is suing the county alleging it fired him for investigating claims of bullying. Two former employees of the county jail filed lawsuits this year as well. Finally, county Republicans also filed suit against the county alleging that the council illegally granted itself new authority when it comes to naming members of the minority party to the county election board.