Fort Smith officials respond to claims of improper legal billing

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 199 views 

An attorney engaged in a whistleblower lawsuit against the Fort Smith Police Department is alleging the city of Fort Smith's legal counsel has engaged in improper billing practices and may have broken the law.

The allegations against the Daily and Woods Law Firm were brought to light Tuesday (May 20) by attorney Matt Campbell on his website, the Blue Hog Report.

Campbell’s website story includes details of billing associated with a lawsuit Campbell had filed against the police department related to a Freedom of Information Act request he had made with the department. Campbell is the attorney in a whistle blower lawsuit against the city filed last year.

Campbell had requested documents tied to one of the cases through a FOIA request, but was denied, prompting him to eventually file a lawsuit. The lawsuit was eventually settled, with the city providing the documents requested and Campbell only being out about $315 (costs and filing fee for the lawsuit). But as a result of another FOIA request filed earlier this year, Campbell was able to track billing from the law firm to the city related to his first FOIA request, with the city on the hook to Daily and Woods for a total of $6,778.75.

In adding up the billing from the firm, Campbell noted an unusual number of meetings or telephone conversations between the firm and city officials. Campbell also noted several phone conversations listed by Daily and Woods that did not happen.

"But the 11th (of November)? Nope. None. The 12th? Only one at 3:55 p.m., not two. How about the 18th?  Zero. The 20th? Same. And the 22nd? Shockingly, also zero,” Campbell noted about dates in which Daily and Woods said they talked to Campbell about the document request.

Campbell noted that if the invoices to the city were intentionally inaccurate, the law firm could be committing a crime.

"Depending on whether these invoices were mailed or emailed, submitting a knowingly false invoice for payment could possibly be construed as either mail fraud or wire fraud.  Even if it is not criminal — which is for someone else to ultimately decide — it’s still unethical."

In a telephone call Thursday (May 22), Campbell told The City Wire about another possible charge.

"It could be theft by deception if someone wanted to do it that way, but that's a harder one to prove. The wire fraud is complete at the time it was sent."

Reached for comment, City Attorney Jerry Canfield of Daily and Woods PLLC said he believed the records to be accurate.

"Our records are accurate and we're still in the process of looking at the details that are mentioned in the blog, but our comment is again it's a regular, ongoing monthly process. It's been going on for years. They're subject to public inspection. They've always been subject to public inspection. We're taking the time to evaluate the individual assertions in the blog to make sure we know what all the appropriate facts are."

City Administrator Ray Gosack said he could not provide a detailed comment without seeing all of the documentation Campbell used to compile his blog post, including Campbell's own phone records.

"I really can't comment on it on seeing what records he has that would prove otherwise. I mean, our records are public records and presumably he got those through a FOI request. I think to respond to that, I would need to see what records he has to show otherwise."

Gosack added that audits are not traditionally conducted on specific bills, including from Daily and Woods, though city staff does review bills each month to ensure accuracy.

"Well, they're reviewed every month. They (Daily and Woods) send us a bill every month and the bill is reviewed, but I don't know that anyone is actually going to Daily and Woods' office and auditing the backup behind the billing record. I mean, we don't have staff that do that kind of review of all the invoices the city receives. The city receives hundreds if not thousands of invoices each month. We have no staff to go to each vendor and verify the source records behind the invoices. But the invoices are reviewed before they're paid."

Gosack said the law firms' records have never been called into question previously, adding that Daily and Woods keeps "very meticulous" records.

Asked whether a review of Daily and Woods' billing was necessary in light of Campbell's allegations, Gosack dismissed the notion.

"I think I would need to see his proof. … If someone is going to make serious allegations, they need to have proof. And a blog post is not proof."

Campbell noted near the conclusion of his website article that his allegations are about more than just a few billing errors.

“At the end of the day, though, if you are a taxpayer in Fort Smith, the big picture here is troubling. You have a private firm, in the capacity of city attorney, who caused the City to get sued by giving them incorrect advice (twice) about how to respond to a FOIA request. Despite a settlement being reached in eight days from filing, the law firm managed to use that suit to bill over $6,700 in November by unnecessarily duplicating work and, apparently, padding the bill with phone calls that didn’t even happen.”

Campbell also noted in the article that he will soon write more about invoices from Daily and Woods to the city.