The Tarrant Regional Water District paid its outside general counsel nearly $1.8 million in the past year without a contract. 

Although it is not required by law, local governmental agencies should periodically seek requests for proposals for the outside professionals it hires, including lawyers, engineers and accountants, said Mick McKamie, a San Antonio-based lawyer who specializes in that area of the law.

“That’s a good policy,” he said, “Some do it on an ad hoc basis when they feel there’s a need either because of changes of the marketplace or what the district is doing.”

McKamie said it’s also “better to have the arrangement in writing so everyone knows the expectations.”

“The contract should express the fee arrangement; in other words are they charging a flat fee for a certain amount of services, or are they charging all the services on an hourly basis,” he said.

The water district paid Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell, Kelly & Taplett LLP $1,767,229.82 in the past year, water district spokesman Chad Lorance said. Pope Hardwicke has worked as the district’s general counsel for decades without a contract. George Christie, a partner at the law firm, declined to comment. 

Leah King, newly elected as board president, said she was interested in getting a contract between the water district and its general counsel in the future.

“There’s not anything else we do that we don’t have contracts in place for,” King said. “If we’re working with a third-party vendor to move dirt, there’s an agreement in place, there’s a scope of work in place, and the staff evaluates the success or lack thereof of the vendor who provided those services. It’s a matter of being able to hold ourselves and our vendors accountable.”

Mary Kelleher, who was elected to the water district board May 1 replacing former board chairman Jack Stevens, also said she was disappointed by the large amount spent with the law firm and the lack of a written agreement. 

The water district’s total legal costs from July 1, 2016, to July 21, 2021, were more than $14 million. This includes other firms besides Pope Hardwicke, Lorance said. 

Some water districts, like the Lower Colorado River Authority, have attorneys on staff while others, such as the North Texas Municipal Water District, maintain written agreements with lawyers in private practice to represent them. 

Other governmental entities, such as the North Texas Tollway Authority, have a mix of both.

“NTTA has two lawyers on staff. Dena Stroh serves as general counsel; Angela Hough is assistant general counsel. NTTA uses the request for qualifications procurement process for legal services. Most recently, we procured contracts for legal services and bond counsel representation in 2016 and 2020. We anticipate re-procuring  these contracts in 2024,” Authority spokeswoman Michael Rey said.

Both the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County have lawyers on staff. 

When the city does hire a lawyer not on staff, the charter says it must be done so with City Council approval, city spokeswoman Michelle Gutt said. 

This is typically done for complex issues, such as pension and game room litigation. 

The city is not required to go out for bids for outside counsel because it is considered a professional service, and the state does not require bids for professional services. The city attorney will select a law firm with expertise needed, she said. 

The city also may retain an outside attorney to represent employees if there is the possibility of a conflict for the City Attorney’s Office to represent both the city and the employee. In this instance, Gutt said, City Council approval is not required to hire these so-called “conflicts attorneys,” but they are subject to the same $100,000 limit as all other contracts.

By state statute, the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office represents the county in legal matters. When the county requires specialized legal representation, the Commissioners Court confers with the DA’s Office in employing outside counsel. The county has a policy of paying $250 per hour for outside counsel, but the Commissioners Court can increase the hourly rate if it is in the best interest of the county, county spokesman Bill Hanna said. 

On June 29, the water board hired a different law firm, Thompson & Horton, after learning that former board president Jack Stevens had directed staff to exempt retiring general manager Jim Oliver and another employee from the district’s paid leave policy. This exemption could have resulted in Oliver being paid about an additional year’s salary had it not been revoked by the board. New board president King said afterward that the district’s general counsel, Pope Hardwicke, “was aware of the arrangement between Stevens and Oliver and never relayed that information back to the board.” And Jason Smith, the attorney Oliver has hired to help him get the  money back, wrote in a letter to Thompson & Horton that Stevens had been following Pope Hardwicke’s advice.

Thompson & Horton has a contract with the Tarrant Regional Water District stating it will “provide legal services and advice to the Board on certain matters relating to the departure and retirement of former TRWD General Manager, Jim Oliver.”

The contract further states that it will bill in six-minute increments and partners will charge a rate of $350 per hour, counsel $325, associates between $210 and $290 depending on their experience and paralegals $125. 

“T&H will attempt to staff each matter in a manner that is most economical to TRWD based on the nature of the project,” according to the contract. 

Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at jessica.priest@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jessica Priest

Jessica Priest is Fort Worth Report's government and accountability reporter. She was previously on USA TODAY's regional investigative team. After Jessica reported that a Midland County prosecutor worked...

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