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Attorney David Collins last week presented the Jefferson County Commission with the final invoice for the professional services that his law firm rendered Clerk of Court Kirk Reams during the latter's recent legal troubles.
All told, the combined bills for Collins' representation of Reams in the civil and criminal cases totaled $114,163 – $84,163 of it for Collins' firm and $30,000 in reimbursement to Reams for legal expenses that the latter had already paid.
Collins originally submitted his fee statement to County Attorney Buck Bird, who promptly forwarded it to the commission.
“Both Scott Shirley and I feel that because of our close working relationship with the board and the clerk that the board needs for the matter to be evaluated by independent counsel for study and a recommendation to the board as to all the issues involved, including statutory and case law rulings,” Bird wrote the board.
Unable to rely on its attorneys for legal advice, commissioners were left in the lurch on Thursday evening, Feb. 9, when Collins approached them for a resolution of the matter. Collins told the board that given the state had expended more than $200,000 for attorneys' fee in pursuit of sustaining Reams' suspension, his bill was more than reasonable by comparison.
The package that Collins presented contained hourly itemized entries for every activity that his firm had undertaken in defense of Reams on the two cases during more than a year. Those rates, per the documentation, were $450 hourly in the criminal case, and $300 and $200 hourly respectively for himself and Attorney Charles Collins in the civil case.
Collins expressed bafflement and not a little frustration with the county attorneys' decision to refer the matter to outside counsel for a recommendation. One thing he knew, Collins said, was that the cost was going to escalate.
“I'm not including the cost right now,” Collins said. “But this number is going to change because I'm going to start putting interest on it.”
Never mind the cost that the outside counsel would charge to review the matter, he added.
The commission was at a loss what to do, given the lack of input from its two attorneys. Which begs the question, what exactly is the county paying for in legal services, if any time that a complex or complicated legal matter comes up outside counsel must be hired?
Commissioner Stephen Fulford took exception to the county being held accountable for Reams' legal fees. Nothing personal, Fulford told Reams, but what was to stop any ex-employee who got in trouble from coming back to the county for financial help?
Collins said he heard where Fulford was going with his question. But the fact was that case law showed that public employees were entitled to have their legal fees paid by government if they were exonerated, as Reams had been, Collins said. Any official on the board would want their name cleared if they were wrongly accused and they should be compensated, Collins said.
Paul Henry, a citizen with a penchant for faulting government waste, particularly when it impacts taxpayers, defended Reams, telling the latter that his due process had been violated. Henry argued that it would be cheaper for the county in the long run to pay Collins the fees.
“By the time this is done, we're going to pay more if it costs $10,000 to litigate this,” Henry said, likening the situation to the border wall, which he said would likely cost $10 billion instead of $5 billion by the time it was over, given the way that government worked.
“You have to look at the total picture,” Henry said.
Commissioner J.T. Surles questioned whether the county's insurance policy would cover Reams' legal fees.
In response, County Coordinator Parrish Barwick offered that an inquiry had already been made to the insurance company and it had asked for the submission of more detailed information before rendering a decision. The current documentation, Barwick said, should satisfy the insurance company's request.
The way the issue was left, the commission decided to accept their attorneys' recommendation and seek outside counsel to make a determination whether the county should pay Reams' legal fees.
Barwick, meanwhile, was to pursue the insurance coverage option. Collins, for his part, reminded the commission that the fee would not remain at $114,163, but would begin accruing interest.
Former Governor Rick Scott suspended Reams in October 2017, following a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigation that resulted in two findings against Reams.
The first was that Reams had misused his official position to enter the courthouse after hours “to engage in inappropriate conduct with a paramour.”
The second was that Reams “allowed the paramour unauthorized access to, and use of, a county laptop computer.”
Reams was never formally charged with the first allegation, although the Governor referenced it in his suspension order, citing Reams' commission of “malfeasance and/or misfeasance,” or abuse of his position of public trust through improper acts.
A jury exonerated Reams of the misdemeanor charge of petit-theft in January 2018. The Governor, however, did not reinstate Reams, as typically happens when juries exonerate suspended officials. Nor did the Legislature take up the issue during its session.
In March, Reams filed a lawsuit in federal court to have his case heard before the Governor or Senate and be reinstated. The case was argued before U.S. District Judge Hinkle in October, and in November, the judge issued a 13-page ruling favoring Reams.
The ruling found that Scott and the Senate had violated Reams' right to due process and ordered the Governor and Senate to decide the issue by Nov. 30 or the court would act.
In early December, Scott reinstated Reams.