For now, there are no trained outside eyes looking to see whether the town of Hilton Head is properly spending hundreds of thousands of tax dollars annually on outside law firms.
But better oversight is needed, say a Florida law professor and a longtime Charleston attorney who has sued other lawyers for legal malpractice on behalf of clients.
Since fiscal 2013, Hilton Head has paid a collective $2.4 million to 11 law firms, including more than $2 million to three present or former firms connected to the town’s main outside attorney, Greg Alford, according to town records provided to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette under the state Freedom of Information Act.
The amount paid to outside firms has been generally increasing in recent years, with more than a total of $778,000 spent last fiscal year, which ended June 30, records show.
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The $2.4 million includes more than $29,000 paid since last year to a Columbia-based law firm that was secretly hired by Town Council to give the town advice on the then-precarious employment situation of town manager Steve Riley.
And nearly $200,000 collectively has been paid to a Charleston law firm, its predecessor, and the Alford Law Firm to represent Town Council member Kim Likins in her ongoing defamation lawsuit against vocal government critical Skip Hoagland.
Dusty Rhoades, who has been practicing law in Charleston since 1983 and whose law practice includes the area of legal malpractice, told the Packet and Gazette that the town of Hilton Head should hire some “sort of auditing firm — like insurance companies do — to ensure there’s not overbilling for time that’s never really spent.”
“In my experience, it’s too easy for lawyers, as a group, to overstate it,” Rhoades said, noting he’s seen attorneys bill for more hours than they actually work.
Anthony Alfieri, a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law and director of the school’s Center for Ethics and Public Service, agreed that more oversight is needed.
“The lack of a centralized oversight system and appropriate auditing procedures creates a significant risk of mismanagement and no accountability,” he said.
Brian Hulbert, the town’s in-house attorney, said the town doesn’t use an outside auditor to go through invoices submitted by law firms. Rather, a town department receiving legal services reviews invoices to make sure the billed amounts are correct, then forwards them to either the assistant town manager or town manager for approval, he said.
Hulbert said he does not typically review the invoices, adding that attorneys billing the town have an ethical obligation to not overbill.
But Rhoades said most town employees reviewing invoices would not have the background required to ensure the town is not being overbilled. As a comparison, most insurance companies that use outside law firms don’t see the legal invoices until they’ve been through their auditor, and that Hilton Head could benefit from a similar practice, he said.
Reba Campbell with the Municipal Association of South Carolina said she is unaware of any municipality in the state that does an independent review of legal bills. Typically, she said, if a municipality has an on-staff attorney, that person would review bills from outside law firms.
Asked if Hilton Head needs a better process to help prevent over-billing, mayor David Bennett replied, “I would think Steve (Riley) is knowledgeable enough to size that up,” adding that “in our form of government, Steve (Riley) is essentially the CEO, and that’s in his purview.”
Besides the issue of billing oversight, Alfieri also expressed concerns about how the town evaluates legal services provided by Alford, the town’s main outside attorney since 2003. Alford, currently of the Alford Law Firm, handles real estate matters and civil litigation, and advises Town Council, Hulbert said.
Alford is appointed by Town Council and serves at the council’s “pleasure,” according to town code. In comparison, Riley has hiring and firing authority over Hulbert, who earns $113,182 annually.
Town Council reviews Alford annually. Nancy Gasen, director of human resources for the town, said the process is “typically identical” to the evaluation used for the town manager.
Alford completes a self-evaluation; council completes an evaluation of him; then both parties meet to discuss it, Gasen said. Later, council members in open session decide whether to retain Alford.
In his fiscal 2015 and 2016 self-evaluations, copies of which were provided by the town to the newspapers, Alford gave himself high marks — an overall 4 and 4.3, respectively, out of a possible 5. Town Council gave him overall marks of 4.2. and 4.4 for those respective years.
But Alfieri contends that grading system is inadequate.
“The current system of evaluation does not appear to meet the standards of effective law firm external or internal evaluations,” he said. “It doesn’t meet the standards of legal services common to both public and private sectors.”
“Good civic governance and standards require openness and transparency, and an accountability system,” Alfieri continued. “In this case, those systems seem to be lacking in rigor.”
Bennett said as part of the evaluation process, council members receive input from Riley and assistant town manager Greg DeLoach “summarizing their thoughts on how well Greg Alford has done his job,” adding, “And I think they’re certainly the two closest to him.”
Gasen said Alford was sent his latest self-evaluation form at the end of October. By the end of this month, Town Council is expected to have completed its evaluation of him, according to town documents.
Alford did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.