Ironically, it took a legal threat to convince Denver city attorney Dan Muse to release the legal bills of Debevoise & Plimpton, the high-priced spread that's rung up a $1 million tab representing Denver's interests against the Securities and Exchange Commission's "informal inquiry" into DIA bond sales.
If an "informal" inquiry justifies a million bucks' worth of hand-holding, it's a good thing Denver isn't in real trouble.
Although numerous requests had been made for the release of those records, most notably by city councilwoman Mary DeGroot, it wasn't until last Tuesday--the day after Westword filed suit to get the documents--that Muse issued a version of the bills. A "redacted" (read: censored) version.
Before they were made public, someone in the city attorney's office went through the billing statements with a black marker and a heavy hand. But it's still possible to read between the lines.
The bills begin innocuously--innocuously, that is, if you overlook the fact that they start adding up long before Denver City Council approved any contract authorizing the city to do business with the firm. On September 2, 1994, Debevoise & Plimpton lead counsel Ralph Ferrara (a $495-an-hour man) and associate Lance Cole ($325) have a conference call with Muse "regarding SEC inquiry," and Cole then drafts a letter to Muse regarding the firm's "engagement." It takes less than an hour. But the meter is ticking.
Soon the phone calls and faxes are flying--and so are the firm's lawyers and their assistants, billing the city for every minute in the air between Washington, D.C., and Denver.
On September 13, for example, a legal assistant bills 11.6 hours--at $116 per hour--for: "Travel to Denver to work on SEC investigation; number and confidential stamp BLANK BLANK, travel to airport and tour of facility; review and index files responsive to SEC document request; copy relevant documents." Ignoring that Debevoise lawyers have a fully staffed Denver city attorney's office on which they can call for help, how tough can it be to find local talent that can wield rubber stamps for less than $116 an hour? (And, in fact, five days later a legal assistant again travels to Denver, where he/she trains a paralegal on the "organization and indexing of documents"--and bills Denver for the service.)
On September 22, associate William Formon invoices the city for 9.4 hours spent thusly: "Review administration files of BLANK department; meeting with S. Saunders; attend Municiple [sic] Securities Rulemaking Board speech; telephone conference with BLANK regarding journalist inquiry; meeting with document duplication service representative." An excellent use of $242-an-hour time: attending speeches at organizations whose names he can't spell, chatting with BLANKs about reporters, and checking out the local Kinko's, or some reasonable facsimile.
On October 8, two Debevoise attorneys discuss a Rocky Mountain News article--and both bill the city for doing so.
On October 18, Ferrara--still at $495 an hour--bills Denver for: "Discussion with D. Muse regarding BLANK letter and BLANK contact; discussion with BLANK regarding BLANK issues and BLANK."
On October 25, Andrew Schauer, an associate whose time is billed at a relatively paltry $85 an hour, spends 9.3 hours to: "Review daily press accounts of the SEC investigation; copy and send press accounts to L. Cole"--Lance Cole, that is, a Debevoise attorney who bills $325 an hour to read such documents.
On December 12, Ferrara makes yet another trip to Denver, billing 11 hours to: "Prepare for meeting with City Council; meeting with City Council regarding developments, prepare BLANK for SEC testimony; follow-up meetings with D. Muse and [deputy city attorney] G. Cerrone." The next day, he adds another 11.3 hours for: "Meeting with BLANK; continue preparation of BLANK for SEC testimony; attendance at BLANK BLANK examination; return travel."
Small wonder that Ferrara had to prepare for the meeting with city council; it was at this session that he revealed his firm had already run through the original $750,000 contract he'd predicted would take the city through March. The day after Ferrara returned to D.C., another associate was already on the phone with the city attorney's office "regarding new contract." And last month, Muse asked council to authorize that contract--another $1 million to see Debevoise & Plimpton through the spring.
That's when the council finally balked. They wanted to see what the city had been getting for its money. Last Tuesday they got their answer: Not much.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
We now know that Denver has subsidized trips to San Diego, to San Francisco, to Los Angeles, to Dallas (although it hasn't been billed for attorneys' shoeshines, as the invoices are careful to note). The city has covered dozens of conference calls, all involving several attorneys, who each bill for their time. The charges total more than $1 million, and the January bills have yet to be made public. Rather than attempt to get city council to approve a new contract for Debevoise & Plimpton, the city plans to hire a local firm to take over the lead on the SEC work--even though last fall Muse declared Debevoise and company the only firm with the expertise necessary to get the city off the hook. Now the city's on the hook for the rest of Debevoise's charges, as well as a new firm's fees. Muse has suggested that the money could come from the airport reserve fund--currently at $8.7 million and dropping.
An $8.7 million reserve fund for a $5 billion airport.
An unsupervised invoice here, an uncontrolled contract there--pretty soon it starts to add up. That's the real bottom line to the Debevoise & Plimpton bills--and to the airport's tardy, overbudget opening.
No one was watching.