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Friday, February 24, 2006 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre called the consultants’ reports commissioned to clear up the pension system mess a whitewash.

Next came the bills for legal work defending City Hall officials under investigation that were blacked out to conceal privileged information. These black and white imbroglios fired up Aguirre into new quarrels with City Council and consultants. The critical documents, intended to give city leaders some new insights for remedial action, merely left more questions.

The confrontation over billed fees between the City Attorney and the City Council dates back to Aguirre’s relentless challenges to the original consultants, Vinson & Elkins, to provide billing details. Under pressure, the firm finally issued two reports of their investigation after the original contract of $150,000 ballooned to $6 million. Aguirre called the V&E findings a whitewash to cover the City Hall officials that hired the firm.

The Securities and Exchange Commission and city auditors KPMG likewise rejected the reports for lack of independence, so V&E was terminated. Score one point for Aguirre.

Enter another consulting firm, Kroll Inc., picking up on the investigation required by the auditors. The new team, acting as the audit committee for city government, became the City Attorney’s new target when it extended the investigation several months beyond the targeted completion date.

Again, efforts by Aguirre to obtain details of the $7.8 million of fees billed by Kroll were denied under the umbrella of independence for the audit committee. Certain councilpersons were inclined to agree with the defiant city attorney because they felt coerced into signing a blank check.

Then the City Council docketed approval of about $1 million of legal fees to represent city officials during the ongoing federal and county investigations for conspiracy. Aguirre had the tenacity to ask for billing details. He asked again when Mayor Jerry Sanders requested the city council last month to authorize another $10 million for Kroll to keep the audit committee going on their evaluation.

By now seeing red, the City Attorney was thwarted on both counts by the principles of independence and attorney-client privilege. Release of documents under the public records access law produced 400 pages of legal bills with substantial amounts of text blacked out. That gets only a half point for Aguirre.

His critics claim that as an attorney he should respect the canons of privileged information. They also accuse him of being the cause of these exorbitant fees billed to the city because of his obstruction of due process by filing or threatening legal actions.

As long as the City Council fails to control the work it contracts for, these investigations and big consultants’ fees will continue to be swallowed up into the big black hole. The expenditures to date of $30 million with no end in sight will surely rile up taxpayers to hold City Hall accountable. The city is truly “over a barrel,” as lamented at City Council by an official in the heat of debate over extending consultants’ fees.

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