Counties keep water lawsuit legal fees secret

By Tom Cullen
Storm Lake Times

The three counties defending a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works refuse to release details about their legal expenses.

The counties have rebuffed several requests by The Storm Lake Times over the last year to release information about law firms the counties have hired to defend against the suit.

The Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors haven’t accounted for what could be over $1 million in legal fees incurred from their defense of Des Moines Water Works.

BV Supervisor Paul Merten told The Storm Lake Times last week at the public hearing for the county’s budget that the supervisors rolled $15,000 in funds for legal fees into a fund managed by Sac County Auditor Jim Dowling.

The fund was established last year to fund the defense of BV, Sac and Calhoun counties against DMWW, which filed suit against the counties last March over excessive nitrate discharge into the Raccoon River.

Buena Vista hired Storm Lake drainage attorney Gary Armstrong, Belin McCormick law firm of Des Moines and Crowell & Moring law firm of Washington, D.C., to craft its defense.

The county has revealed one payment it made to Armstrong in January for $25,000.

As for its arrangements the counties have with Belin McCormick and Crowell & Moring, Dowling declined to comment or release any related documentation after four requests from The Storm Lake Times.

Dowling referred The Times to Sac County drainage attorney Colin McCullough. McCullough was unavailable. Dowling is the legal custodian of the records.

Buena Vista’s stance is that it would pay for any expenses exceeding $15,000 in future years, according to Supervisor Dale Arends. He did not estimate what that bill might be, how it might be paid or when.

The Storm Lake Times has contacted the Iowa Freedom of Information Council to aid in its request for information.

“Iowa’s open records law is clear that the public — the taxpayers of these counties — are entitled to know how their money is being spent,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the IFOIC.

“It goes against the grain of open government to deprive the people from knowing how much these lawyers have been paid so far and how much the public will have to pay going forward. … And the counties run the risk of undermining their respect and credibility with their taxpayers if they decline to make this financial information public now.”