Wall, county spar over fees | SteamboatToday.com

Wall, county spar over fees

Commissioners want details about legal bill; sheriff refuses

Brandon Gee

The Routt County Commissioners want more information before they will pay a $6,700 legal bill forwarded to them by the Routt County Sheriff’s Office. But Sheriff Gary Wall has refused, claiming that providing the information would force him to relinquish his attorney-client privilege and “jeopardize the sovereignty of my office.”

The disputed legal services – performed by The Law Offices of Ralph A. Cantafio on behalf of Wall – involve former Sheriff John Warner and former Deputy Lance Eldridge. Eldridge delivered damaging testimony against Wall in the July trial that led to the sheriff’s conviction for driving while ability impaired. Eldridge resigned from the Sheriff’s Office the same day as his testimony and two days later said that he felt he “had no choice” but to resign and that the decision was “related” to his testimony.

In addition to the disputed $6,700, Routt County taxpayers already have paid Cantafio’s office nearly $30,000 this year for Sheriff’s Office legal services.

Cantafio’s work for Wall is not related to the sheriff’s criminal trial. Steamboat Springs attorney Ron Smith represented Wall in that trial.

In an Oct. 6 letter to Wall, the commissioners wrote they were concerned with a Sept. 5 invoice from Cantafio because “the billing indicates most of the work done was in connection with an internal affairs investigation and possible criminal charges.” In the case of an internal affairs investigation, commissioners want to know why the investigation was not handled within the Sheriff’s Office. In the case of criminal charges, they wonder why the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office was not used.

“Assuming the legal counsel would be paid for by taxpayers, it would be for official – not personal – business,” Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said Monday.

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In a Nov. 13 letter to Wall, Cantafio wrote that the commissioners’ request for a justification “is nothing more than a disregarding of the tradition of the attorney-client privilege.”

Commissioner Doug Monger said Monday that he disagrees and that the county simply wants enough information about the purpose of the legal services to justify their payment by taxpayers.

Neither the county nor Wall would provide a copy of the disputed invoice. The Steamboat Pilot & Today submitted records requests for the invoice under the Colorado Open Records Act on Tuesday.

It appears that at least Eldridge, and possibly Warner, are specifically named in the invoice. Both men have been mentioned in comments and correspondence.

“(The commissioners) singled it out because it was stuff regarding Eldridge they were wanting to look at,” Wall said Monday.

An Oct. 20 letter from the commissioners to Wall mentions Warner: “Contrary to Mr. Cantafio’s assertion, we believe that most of the time billed in the Sept. 5 billing clearly relates to either the internal affairs investigation of a former employee or possible criminal charges, presumably against that former employee or, as was suggested by your attorney to John Warner, against Mr. Warner.”

On Monday, Wall emphatically denied rumors that he plans to sue the former sheriff or the former deputy who testified against him. Asked whether criminal charges might be brought against either of the two, Wall said, “I’m not going to respond to anything else.”

The sheriff offered no other information regarding the legal services, citing his attorney-client privilege and claiming it involves a personnel matter.

“This is attorney-client privilege stuff, and I can’t start talking about it. It was something I felt important to do,” Wall said. “Absolutely nothing was done inappropriately.”

When reached on his cell phone Monday, Eldridge said he could not comment. Warner was unreachable.

Separate services

The $30,000 the county has paid to Cantafio this year is separate from the $344,000 budgeted in 2008 for the Routt County Attorney’s Office.

The county attorney’s office typically provides legal services for all county departments. But Wall’s frequent quarrels with the county commissioners led them last year to advise Wall to seek his own legal counsel. The county attorney ultimately represents the Routt County Board of Commissioners.

“There’s a conflict of interest,” Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said Monday.

Wall said he assumed the separate legal counsel he obtained would be his own.

“They’re trying to force me to relinquish my attorney-client privilege over a bill,” Wall said. “They’re the ones who told me to get my own legal counsel, and now they’re questioning something I had my legal counsel do. : I don’t know why this is an issue.”

County Attorney John Merrill said he is not providing the disputed invoice because Wall and Cantafio have since claimed there was an inadvertent waiver of attorney-client privilege.

“The sheriff and his attorney have taken the position that it was privileged information,” Merrill said Monday. “If the attorney had known that Gary was going to send a copy to the county, he would have redacted it.”

Although he thinks the county commissioners have a right to see the invoice to ensure the proper use of public money, Merrill said he would not release it to anyone else without Wall’s permission.

“My concern is if we release it for some other purpose he could take the position that we violated his attorney-client privilege,” Merrill said.

By the numbers

Amount Routt County has paid to The Law Offices of Ralph A. Cantafio for Sheriff’s Office legal services this year:

January, $0

February, $0

March, $4,040.50

April, $0

May, $9,478.87

June, $1,740

July, $4,545.25

August, $6,838.46

September, $2,284.92

October, $825

Total, $29,753