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Legal fees mount in computer suit

The costs are escalating for fighting a lawsuit accusing the House of breach of contract over an online legislative system.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published November 30, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - State House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's legal defense team in a computer company's lawsuit sometimes consists of four lawyers from the same firm attending court hearings at taxpayer expense.

The law firm of Broad & Cassel in Tampa has charged the House $579,000 over 10 months, largely after Hayes Computer Systems sued the House last March, alleging a breach of contract. With the trial still a year away, the fees will keep growing, even as Byrd assures taxpayers on the House Web site that "fiscal responsibility is alive and well" in the House.

"We wouldn't do that, but for the Hayes people," Byrd said of the legal fees. "They didn't perform under the contract. Our desire was to have a computer system."

Hayes claims it is owed about $2.7-million for creating an online legislative system. As House employees disagreed a year ago over whether the system would be ready for the 2003 session, Byrd hired a close political ally, Steve Burton of Broad & Cassel, to advise on technology issues at a rate of $250 an hour.

Under Byrd, the House already has paid more than $3-million in fees to lawyers and another computer company.

"They're going to end up paying these lawyers money that they could have paid to Hayes," said the company's attorney, G. Donovan Conwell Jr.

Burton defended Broad & Cassel's full-court press.

"This case was put on a fast track," Burton said. "That requires that we staff it to be ready for trial. The entire project has been put at issue, and it's a complex case."

Seven Broad & Cassel lawyers billed the House $73,599 for 348 hours of legal work in September, records show.

Hayes usually has one or two lawyers in court.

Conwell said Hayes' contract with the House included a four-year warranty covering software bugs, but the House refused to pay money Hayes said it was owed for work already done. Hayes left the House in March in protest over not being paid. The House says Hayes "abandoned" the project.

As the case of Hayes E-Government Resources vs. the House grinds along, it is becoming increasingly acrimonious.

Two weeks ago, Broad & Cassel sent four lawyers to an all-day deposition of Byrd's top aide, House chief of staff P.K. Jameson. With two news reporters present, Hayes' attorney lodged a complaint on the record.

"As a taxpayer," Conwell said, "I object to four attorneys being here."

House lawyers harshly criticized Conwell.

"You're grandstanding for the press," shouted J.B. Donnelly of Broad & Cassel. "That's wrong, it's unprofessional, it's unethical, and I object to it, and we're not going to put up with it."

"This is ridiculous," Burton said by speakerphone in Tampa. "You're just playing a game. I really want to say shame on you."

A third Broad & Cassel lawyer, Charles Geitner, rejected Conwell's complaint that a move to a larger conference room delayed the start of Jameson's deposition.

"It's not my fault that we've got the press here showing up," Geitner said.

Byrd hired Broad & Cassel last year, days before he took over as House speaker. Burton agreed to charge the state $250 an hour and said that's at least $50 an hour less than he charges private clients.

Burton in turn hired Jagged Peak, a Clearwater computer company that was a client of his firm, to make improvements to the House system. Through September, the House had paid Jagged Peak nearly $2.5-million. The firm's charges have declined dramatically since August.

Burton said he worked out a 90-day extension of Hayes' deadline to make sure computers were working on time.

Another Broad & Cassel lawyer, Donnelly, bills the House at $250 an hour. But he charges another state agency half as much. According to Attorney General Charlie Crist, Donnelly charges $125 an hour as a special counsel to the Department of Children and Families.

At their last court appearance, Circuit Judge Jonathan Sjostrom asked both sides to choose when they want to try the case. Hayes chose the earliest available date, next June. Broad & Cassel chose a later date, a three-week period in October 2004.

For the first time, Byrd criticized his predecessors' handling of the installation of the so-called Lawmaker system. "(Tom) Feeney and Paul Hawkes," Byrd said, referring to the previous speaker and his policy chief, "I wished they had monitored that better."

[Last modified November 30, 2003, 01:16:37]


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