OAKLAND — The lead attorney for the Oakland Unified School District has asserted that an outside law firm wasted more than $840,000 of the district's money through duplicate invoices, questionable claims and the mismanagement of a "routine" legal case — and that one of the firm's partners urged two school board members to call off an internal investigation into the bills.
Those allegations, detailed in a letter from Oakland Unified's general counsel to a principal attorney with Bryant & Brown, stem from an internal school district investigation into billing "irregularities" by the firm. The inquiry is also examining how the school district's facilities department staff members, who worked directly with the husband-and-wife legal team, handled its contracts and bills.
The district has asked the Alameda County District Attorney's Office to review the case.
"I'm confident that a fair investigation will reveal what the facts are," said Tim White, who has led the facilities department for the past six years and managed dozens of school modernization projects.
The school district has not released the findings of its internal probe. But on Wednesday, school officials did disclose General Counsel Deborah Cooksey's letter, as well as other documents related to the case, in response to a public records request made by the Tribune.
In an Oct. 9 letter to attorney Meredith Brown, Cooksey accused the law firm of frequently billing the district multiple times for the same work, in an amount totaling $51,000.
The general counsel questioned a number of additional charges, including a $50,900 bill for drafting a contract and another document that, she stated, were "virtually identical" to forms Brown had received from the city of Piedmont.
Cooksey warned that the district might file a legal malpractice claim against Bryant & Brown because of a court case with an electric company that cost the school district $722,000, including $349,300 in attorney fees to the firm. She also wrote that Brown contacted school board members David Kakishiba and Gary Yee this month in an attempt to stop the investigation.
The probe began in September after board member Noel Gallo questioned the firm's high costs — and why its services were needed when the district had hired an in-house attorney solely to handle facilities work. In all, Bryant & Brown has received more than $1 million from a $435 million pot of construction bond money that voters approved in 2006 for repairing schools.
Zack Wasserman, a lawyer representing Bryant & Brown, said he wouldn't comment on the specifics of the letter, other than that his client disagreed with its "assertions and implications." He said he was disappointed the district went public with the investigation, and that it would have been more appropriate to handle the matter internally.
Last week, Wasserman acknowledged the firm had identified $22,000 in duplicate bills charged in 2007 and 2008 — errors he attributed to Bryant & Brown's new billing system. He said Wednesday, however, that he didn't see the basis for the $50,000 figure Cooksey presented.
Bryant & Brown, located near Oakland's Jack London Square, represents school districts, community colleges, transit districts and other public agencies; its Web site lists dozens of clients.
Brown, who did the majority of the legal work in question, is a prominent community and political figure. She is president of the Montclair Soccer Club and vice president of the Alameda County Democratic Lawyers Club. In August, she was a Hillary Rodham Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
White is also widely respected and well-liked, and he has remained at his post for longer than most of the top officials. His department regained local authority from the state this year after receiving high scores from a team of auditors led by Oakland's now-interim superintendent, Roberta Mayor. Some say they worry White will be made a political scapegoat when others — including former state administrator Kimberly Statham — also signed off on some of the questionable contracts.
"This is a witch hunt," wrote Christopher Waters, a parent activist, in a letter to the interim superintendent.
The district's spokesman, Troy Flint, emphasized Wednesday that the facilities department has made significant progress under White's leadership, and the district was simply trying to tighten its invoice procedures.
"There were cases where protocol was not followed, and a lack of oversight in some instances," Flint said, "but it's premature to suggest that there was any kind of malfeasance."