Social Services Wait as State Pays Lawyers $285K

Lawyers: Speedy payment saved state 25 percent

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Thousands of groups await payment from the state of Illinois, but somehow, the government found money to make a quick payment to prominent lawyers, an AP investigation found.

    As thousands of Illinois social service agencies, hospitals, schools and vendors were waiting months for overdue payments from the state, Gov. Pat Quinn's office pushed out a $285,000 payment to a prominent Chicago Democrat last month, just two weeks after a settlement was reached in a lawsuit, state records show.

    Former Chicago alderman Martin Oberman and four other lawyers were the winners in a lawsuit that forced a special election last fall to fill the last 60 days of President Barack Obama's term in the U.S. Senate. As governor, Quinn was named as a defendant, and therefore the state was required to pay legal fees after a federal appeals court ordered the special vote.

    Quinn's office agreed to a settlement on the fee with Oberman on Aug. 29, but the invoice to pay the bill was dated June 30, and the state cut the check Sept. 15, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and other state records.

    In one email about the bill, a staffer in the governor's office writes to another that the attorney general, who defended Quinn in court, was pressing ``to get it paid quickly, I'm not sure why.'' The governor's budget office then sent the bill to the comptroller, who paid it two days later.

    Both state officials and Oberman dismissed questions about whether political connections or clout had anything to do with the expedited payment. Like Oberman, Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan are Chicago Democrats. Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, whose office ultimately pays the bills, is a Republican, but a spokesman said her staff relies on the governor's priorities in making those calls.

    "Why it was paid when it was paid? I'm not privy to how those things are figured out,'' said Oberman, an alderman from 1975 to 1987 and a three-time candidate for state attorney general.

    He said he did not make speedy payment a condition of the settlement and expected to wait some period of time given the state's finances.

    As of early September, the state owed $5 billion to vendors and social service agencies it depends on to carry out some of its most important tasks. Nearly half of the bills were more than a month overdue, and some stretched back to last year. An AP analysis of state documents revealed that the intervention of state legislators or other influential politicians often meant faster payment of bills in which vendors claimed a hardship.

    Kelly Kraft, spokeswoman for the governor's budget office, said the payment to the attorneys was not the same as paying a bill for goods or services, even though it came out of the general revenue fund, the main state checking account that finances the vast majority of overdue bills.

    "We lost the case and were required to pay his attorney fees," Kraft said. "As the losing party, it is not unusual to have attorney fee payments expedited."

    But not all payments of the state's legal debts are rushed. State records analyzed by the AP show that in September, the state owed $2.9 million to 72 individuals, law firms, unions and insurance companies for legal awards and settlement fees from the same general revenue fund, some of which were more than 10 months old.

    One of them was Mark Wetzell of Tampico, who settled a case against the state for a March 7 traffic accident in northern Illinois in which a state-operated truck pulled out in front of his rig. The trucks collided and Wetzell's flipped and slid down an embankment.

    Wetzell agreed to about $23,500 for medical bills and truck replacement on July 18 and was told to expect a check in about 100 days. He was paid 73 days later, on Sept. 29, according to state records.

    "When this (accident) happened, everybody knows the shape the state is in, so I wasn't expecting any fast payment. I was happy to get what I got," he said.

    In the election case, Oberman and the other attorneys represented two taxpayers who sued Quinn and then-U.S. Sen. Roland Burris after Burris was appointed to the seat in 2008 by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. They argued that after a governor fills a Senate vacancy, the U.S. Constitution requires a timely election to let voters decide who should represent them, and appellate judges agreed.

    At the polls in November, voters therefore voted twice for the same seat, choosing Sen. Mark Kirk for a 60-day stint until the official end of the Obama/Burris term, as well as the standard six-year term the Republican is now serving.

    Oberman and the other lawyers would have gone back to court to compel Quinn's office to pay their fee if the two sides hadn't settled. The five lawyers splitting the fee agreed to a discount of about 25 percent because they didn't have to return to court to collect, Oberman said.

    Some lawyers who regularly litigate against the state in court were surprised by the speedy payment. One, Springfield attorney Carl Draper, said judgments he wins against the state wait in line like everybody else's.

    "In my years of experience in litigation with the state, a major problem is late payment," Draper said. "Even if there is a judgment, payment comes months or even up to a year late."

    A judge ruled with Draper in December that the Executive Ethics Commission was operating improperly and ordered the state to pay Draper $9,400 in attorney's fees. State records indicate he got paid Sept. 19, nine months after the order.

    Kraft said the voucher for the election-lawsuit payment was properly dated June 30 _ the last day of the 2011 fiscal year _ because the litigation occurred in that fiscal year. But the settlement wasn't signed until August, in the 2012 fiscal year, and without a settlement, the case would have continued with Oberman back in court.

    When asked if the comptroller's office should more closely scrutinize the checks it writes, Topinka spokesman Brad Hahn said the governor's office communicates regularly with state vendors, "so it makes good sense for the comptroller to rely" on the governor's priorities for accelerated payment.

    Natalie Bauer, spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said payment decisions are the governor's to make.

    "We don't handle the purse strings," Bauer said.

    To explore a searchable database of the Illinois government's unpaid bills from Sept. 8, go to http://billpay.qconline.com