- Design by Dustin Glatz with assets from Shutterstock
- Data from City of Colorado Springs
When Steve Bach was running for mayor and needed some legal advice, he turned to his friend John Cook at Hogan Lovells law firm.
Within a few months after Bach took office in June 2011, Hogan Lovells' star began to rise with the city. Soon, the firm came to be an indispensable part of Bach's regime, helping with an array of issues from annexation to information technology. Within a couple of years, Hogan Lovells' billings accounted for more than 40 percent of the city's total outside legal expense.
Those payments added up to $3.5 million during Bach's four-year term. But after Bach left office, the gravy train lurched to a virtual halt. Neither Bach nor Hogan Lovells' John Cook responded to requests for comment, but it's worth mentioning that Hogan Lovells and Cook himself are hardly unknown quantities.
The international firm offers specialized practice in a variety of areas, and locally, Cook represented developer Ray Marshall when he was awarded the first ill-fated U.S. Olympic Committee deal. Hogan Lovells also represented UCHealth in its negotiations to lease city-owned Memorial Health System in 2012.
Mayor John Suthers, on whose watch Hogan Lovells' contracts have skidded to a stop, also declined to comment. The only comment the city offered was an emailed statement from the City Attorney's Office, via city communications director Jamie Fabos, that said, "We do not currently have a contract with the firm."
During 2010, the year before Bach became mayor, Hogan Lovells didn't do any city work. But that changed when Bach, a commercial real estate agent with no political or legal experience, came out of nowhere to win the mayor's seat — the first under the strong mayor-council form of government approved by voters in 2010.
Campaign finance records show Hogan Lovells contributed in-kind legal advice valued at $3,495 to Bach on April 19, 2011, a couple weeks after the election. Cook also gave the campaign a cash contribution of $900. After he won election, Bach used campaign money to pay Hogan Lovells $15,110 between June 1 and Sept. 26, 2011, for legal fees associated with his campaign.
But that was chicken feed compared to what was to come.
Under the Bach regime, Hogan Lovells took on more and more city work, without going through a formal competitive selection process. The firm became involved in work on the Banning Lewis Ranch annexation agreement, regulations for oil and gas drilling, urban renewal, the City Charter, "general employment advice," the city's IT issues and many matters that were redacted from the firm's billings when the Independent sought them under open-records laws some years back.
Bach's first half year saw payments to Hogan Lovells total $24,287. In 2012, payments stepped up to $293,418, records show.
The next year, the firm's compensation hit a peak at $1,666,230, followed by only a slightly lower amount in 2014 of $1,431,392. Those two years, Hogan Lovells' payments accounted for 35.3 to 40.5 percent of the total amount the city spent on outside legal counsel.
In 2015, the firm was paid a mere $181,860, with 60 percent of that paid before Bach left in early June.
After Suthers was sworn in, Hogan Lovells' payments dropped to $73,683 for the last seven months of the year, and it received one final check, for $551, in January 2016. There have been no payments since.
The obvious question is, why Hogan Lovells? Or at a minimum, why so much outside legal work?
Besides Bach's clear preference for the firm, there might be other factors that came into play.
For one, Bach brought in a new city attorney in October 2011, replacing long-serving Patricia Kelly. Bach's choice, Chris Melcher, had no municipal law experience, which could account for why outside attorneys were needed.
Melcher left the city in January 2014 with a severance package worth nearly $134,000. It's worth noting Hogan Lovells was engaged by the city to negotiate Melcher's separation agreement and was paid $5,152 for that task. Melcher later took a job as general counsel of Georgia Regents University, which has since changed its name to Augusta University, and in 2015 was promoted to executive vice president for legal affairs and risk management, and general counsel. Melcher didn't respond to a request for comment.
There are some areas of legal practice that are so specialized or only occasionally needed that it doesn't make sense for a municipality to hire staff attorneys in those areas, such as water law and certain employment matters. It's also true the city might encounter a one-time legal problem that requires expertise of outside counsel, such as leasing Memorial Hospital to UCHealth or a lawsuit over environmental contamination.
That Bach's successor has an extensive legal background might help drive legal bills down. Suthers served as district attorney for the Fourth Judicial District for eight years, did a stint as U.S. Attorney and also served 10 years as Colorado attorney general. During his mayoral campaign, Suthers vowed he "would not favor any law firm" in awarding contracts for legal work, and said that he's well equipped to determine when outside counsel is needed.
"Given my extensive experience," he said in an email to the Indy at the time, "I will be able to assess, in consultation with the city attorney and council, whether the city needs outside legal counsel in a particular matter. ... In each such matter where the city needs outside counsel, firms with appropriate expertise should be asked to present proposals and a merit-based selection made. My experience will also be of assistance in the screening process."
It's unclear whether Hogan Lovells has submitted proposals and not been hired, or whether it simply hasn't pursued city work in the last two years. In any event, records show that since Suthers took office, the city's outside legal counsel expense has declined by 30 percent from a four-year high reached in 2013. So far this year, outside legal costs have totaled only $466,687.