Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn’s legal bills draw scrutiny from fellow elected officials
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Records show Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn spent almost $1,000 in January to have a Denver-based attorney help Horn respond to allegations she was improperly working on her state treasurer’s campaign from her office.
The legal bill is drawing scrutiny from other elected officials in Routt County who are questioning whether the county’s taxpayers should be on the hook for the legal bill.
An invoice Horn’s office submitted to the county finance department shows that the day Steamboat Pilot & Today reported Horn used her county office line to call a campaign consulting firm she selected to help run her campaign for state treasurer, Horn started paying a lawyer in Denver $350 an hour to review and help respond to allegations of improper electioneering.
The invoice shows Horn paid the law firm Klenda Gessler and Blue LLC to review the news coverage and “assess and edit/revise/redraft proposed responses.”
The total legal spending associated with Horn’s response to the stories about the phone calls came in at $945.
Horn initially said she couldn’t remember why she had called her campaign strategists from her county office phone during business hours.
At the time, one county official labeled the phone calls as a potential violation of the state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act, which generally forbids elected officials from using any public money or resources on political campaigns.
After consulting with her attorneys, Horn later claimed the calls she made to Magellan were not related to her campaign for state treasurer.
She ignored follow-up questions and a request for an interview at the time.
In an emailed statement, Horn said she called the conservative campaign consultants to book them for a conference of county treasurers this summer.
Representatives from Magellan Strategies have not returned multiple phone messages left in January from Steamboat Pilot & Today seeking to discuss the nature of the phone calls.
Legal spending scrutinized
The potential use of Routt County taxpayer money to have a lawyer help respond to the news coverage about the calls is drawing scrutiny from Routt County commissioners.
The commissioners are questioning how the expenses were related to her official duties as county treasurer.
They’ve added a discussion about the invoice from Horn to their April 10 agenda.
“I don’t know how you read it any other way except she’s using taxpayer dollars for a campaign,” County Commissioner Cari Hermacinski said Thursday.
Commissioner Tim Corrigan also wants to speak to the treasurer about the invoice from the lawyers.
“I don’t see how it was appropriate to engage legal help at the taxpayer’s expense to answer questions from the newspaper regarding potential electioneering activity in the treasurer’s office,” he said. “I think those questions can be answered without consulting an attorney.”
Commissioners are also concerned that Horn has already appeared to have spent significantly more than the $2,000 the county included in this year’s budget for her legal fees.
The invoice from Klenda Gessler and Blue totals $5,336 and includes services in January and February.
“This invoice would put her well over her budgetary authority for the year already, and here we are only through the month of March,” Corrigan said.
Hermacinski said the treasurer’s annual legal budget is set based on historic records of how much that office typically has spent on legal fees in a year.
The commissioners recently approved $2,000 for the invoice in question, but the treasurer’s office has indicated it is likely going to submit a supplemental budget request to the commissioners for the remainder.
That’s one reason the commissioners want to talk about the legal spending on Tuesday.
“I supposed all of these line items could be legitimate, but we just want to make sure all the items we’re being invoiced for are appropriate and within the statutory authority of the treasurer,” Corrigan said.
Horn did not respond to a phone message seeking comment about the legal fees on Friday.
In late January, she said she would not longer be answering any questions from the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
An unusual arrangement
Horn’s use of an outside law firm strays from a previous precedent of Routt County treasurers utilizing the county’s own attorney.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today reported late last year that a poor working relationship between Horn and the county commissioners and their attorney was forcing county taxpayers to pay a premium for the outside law firm retained by the treasurer’s office.
After Horn used Klenda Gessler and Blue to help prepare for an employee grievance hearing, county officials said their own attorney could have handled the case under normal circumstances for half the hourly rate that Horn paid her outside counsel.
But Horn has clashed with the county commissioners and the county attorney in recent years on several issues, a situation that officials say has strained their relationship and resulted in a policy from the commissioners that prevents Horn from using the more-affordable county attorney.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10.
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