Politics & Government

Attorney says city 'forced' clients to sue, use credit cards

An attorney for Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Bishop insists that his clients were "forced into" their legal situation with the city and that they had no choice but to use city-issued credit cards to retain legal representation to sue the city.

Countryman, Bishop and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce filed suit against the city last week, claiming that the budgets they were provided by Columbus Council were insufficient for them to carry out the constitutional requirements of their offices. Sheriff John Darr had filed a similar suit earlier in the week.

"My clients were forced into this position because the city, first of all, interfered with their budget; two, illegally removing items that had been set up for legal fees; and three, the city attorney refusing to recognize an obvious conflict," Attorney Charles Miller said.

"We, of course, categorically deny all of those allegations," Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said. "We're in court now, and I'm sad to say that a judge is going to have to decide that."

Miller also filed a request for a preliminary injunction that would force the city to restore Countryman's and Bishop's authority to use their city-issued credit cards. That authority was suspended after Finance Director Pam Hodge discovered that they had used their cards to hire legal representation, which is forbidden under city regulations.

Miller said his clients were forced to use their city credit cards when the city blocked their ability to pay legal fees from their budget. And there is no proof that they were ever instructed not to use the cards for professional services, he added.

Attached to letters Hodge sent to Countryman and Bishop in September ordering them to repay the $7,500 apiece they charged were papers outlining the rules and regulations for cardholders. Both officials signed the papers, which make no mention of professional services. However, three more sheets were attached which laid out the regulations in more detail, including the ban on professional services. Those sheets are unsigned.

Miller said there is no proof that his clients ever saw those sheets.

Tomlinson said all of the sheets were presented as a package to Countryman and Bishop, as would be the case with any city cardholder.

Miller also brought up the fact that Tomlinson and other city leaders have often said that once Columbus Council approves a budget for an elected official, that official has the right to spend it as he or she pleases.

Tomlinson said there are legal limitations as to how an elected official can spend his or her budget.

"(Miller) refuses to understand or refuses to admit that he understands that they can spend their budgets however they want unless they are limited by state law," Tomlinson said. "That is the case with the marshal and municipal court clerk. They are limited by law from spending their budgets on outside counsel to sue the city. It's not carte blanche."

Miller said it's the mayor who doesn't understand the issue.

"First of all, the mayor doesn't understand that the marshal and these other elected officials are not city employees," Miller said. "She has it in her mind that they are, but she's wrong about that. They are elected officials, and the mayor has some belief that she has some control over them, which she doesn't."

Miller also accused City Attorney Clifton Fay of intentionally prolonging the legal process by dragging his feet on declaring a conflict of interest that would prevent him from representing his clients, while also being an employee of the city and a defendant in the lawsuit."Overlaying all of this is the fact that the city attorney was asked repeatedly to go ahead and recognize the obvious conflict of interest here so we could go ahead and get independent counsel for these people," Miller said. "He just stubbornly refused."

Fay responded Tuesday.

"I certainly disagree with that," Fay said. "And I would remind the marshal's attorney of State Bar rule 3.1, which provides that a lawyer shall not file a suit nor take action on behalf of a client when the lawyer knows, or when it is obvious, that such action would serve merely to harass or maliciously injure another.

"Other than that, I'll let my lawyers comment."

Miller and his clients' other attorney, Chris Balch of Atlanta, issued a statement responding to Fay's assessment of their lawsuit.

We are well aware of this rule which is why we made sure we did not, nor have we, engaged in any such frivolous actions," the statement read. "Our suit rests on firm legal footing, held and reaffirmed by Mr. Fay's own office that elected officials are not subject to the control of the City Council after their budgets have been passed.

"Mr. Fay's own conduct is what made him a defendant in this case as he attempted to play both sides of this dispute, gave improper and unfounded advice, and violated his duties under the rules governing the practice of law."

Other observers, some on social media, have challenged Tomlinson's claim Friday that the city has already spent more than $100,000 in outside attorney fees on litigation with Countryman, Bishop, Sheriff John Darr and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce, all of whom have filed suit against the city.

Tomlinson said she asked the city attorney's office to tally all of the related invoices that the city has so far paid this year. In the cases of Darr, Countryman and Bishop, the total was $75,247 and for Pierce, it was $31,122, for a total of $106,369 through Nov. 1. There could be more legal bills pending from the last two weeks, she said.

Tomlinson said that, while these cases may have just come to the public's attention in the last few days, the legal wrangling has been going on for months, and the city has had to retain two law firms for the cases -- The Schondelmayer Firm and Hatcher, Stubbs -- to handle the litigation. Pierce's total is high because her legal dealings with the city have been going on much longer, dating back to a similar suit she filed last year, Tomlinson said. That suit never made it to court.

Response From Chris Balch and Charlie Miller to Clifton Fay 11.18.14