Pittsburgh employs 18 lawyers, but it paid nearly $700K to outside firms
Pittsburgh paid almost $700,000 for outside legal counsel last year in addition to the cost of having in-house attorneys, but Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge said the extra help has paid off.
Sanchez Ridge said payments made to settle lawsuits have dropped by 82 percent since 2014, when the city paid about $1 million to plaintiffs seeking legal damages. The city paid $187,481 last year to settle cases, she said.
“We only hire (outside firms) for their experience, lack of resources in our office or conflicts of interest,” Sanchez Ridge said. “We have such incredible talent in this office that we can handle the day-to-day legal business and some additional cases, but because of the number of cases we have, they cannot handle all of that stuff.”
The city has defended 156 lawsuits from 2012 through 2015, but Sanchez Ridge could not say how many were filed against Pittsburgh in 2016. The city last year paid 11 firms a total of $682,840, according to information obtained by the Tribune-Review. The litigation included a costly housing lawsuit, union contract negotiations and other litigation, Sanchez Ridge said.
Since 2012, the city has paid about $2.5 million for outside legal counsel. That’s on top of the $20.6 million it budgeted during that period for its Law Department, which has 18 lawyers, including Sanchez Ridge.
More than half of the 2016 total — $360,299 — went to the firm of Pepper Hamilton, which is representing the city in a federal lawsuit filed by four housing groups. The groups claim Pittsburgh defrauded the Department of Housing and Urban Development by misusing at least $29.5 million from its Community Development Block Grant Program. Pittsburgh has spent more than $1 million defending the case. Sanchez Ridge said housing law is highly specialized, and the city retained Downtown-based Pepper Hamilton because its attorneys have the time and experience to win such a case.
She said the city hired the firms of Campbell Durrant Beatty Palombo & Miller, also Downtown, and Burns White of the North Side for the same reasons.
Campbell Durrant, which received $127,168 in payments, represented the city in several union negotiations, including the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1. Burns White, which was paid $119,355, is defending the city in a construction lawsuit filed by Carnegie-based Beech Construction. The company claims the city owes it more than $25,000 for cost overruns and delays during a 2011 rehabilitation of McArdle Roadway.
The Tribune-Review contacted all 11 firms for comment. They declined or could not be reached.
A representative of Rothman Gordan, which received $12,010 for representing the city in a tax appeal filed by the Omni William Penn Hotel, confirmed that amount and purpose for which the firm was hired but declined further comment.
Sanchez Ridge retained Brazilian law firm Castro, Barros, Sobral and Gomes for $3,065 to track down and serve former Pittsburgh area developer Bernardo Katz with a tax delinquency notice that allowed Pittsburgh to sell the last of his blighted Beechview properties.
Katz, a former Mt. Lebanon resident and accomplished cellist, once owned 80 percent of Beechview’s business district but fled the United States to avoid a federal mortgage fraud indictment, leaving behind his blighted properties.
Mayor Bill Peduto said outside legal help gives Pittsburgh the best chance of winning complex litigation.
“It’s specialty (cases) and it is the amount of work required that couldn’t be taken on by one of the solicitors, simply because our solicitors are all doing their job every day,” he said. “You need somebody who’s focused solely on that one case.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or [email protected]