Lycée charter school pays attorneys thousands to deal with public records requests

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Rebecca Catalanello/The Lens

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Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans racked up $8,440 in legal fees over the course of one month — all for lawyers to respond to public records requests.

The 340-student French language charter school turned to the Adams and Reese law firm earlier this year after struggling to comply with Louisiana open records law.

Attorneys in January charged between $145 and $290 per hour for 38.3 hours of work they spent reviewing and responding to public records requests, according to a May invoice provided to The Lens.

Though the firm also represented the school for a short time in a lawsuit involving a former employee, that work will be billed to Lycée’s insurance provider and was not reflected in the invoice. New Orleans law firm Jackson Lewis is now representing Lycée in the lawsuit.

New Lycée board member Ben Castoriano, who works as an attorney at a different firm, said the school needed the legal guidance: “The lawyer we have worked with has been extremely helpful and during a very difficult time for the school.”

But a public records expert from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press says it’s an expensive proposition, and bad practice, for public agencies to facilitate compliance with public records law.

“It seems like an outrageous policy that results in waste of taxpayer funds and undue delay,” said Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director for the organization.

It’s not that Lycée school officials never answered public records requests on their own.

In November, after $200,000 budget adjustment and sudden staff cuts, The Lens sought job descriptions, payroll records, professional service contracts and the school’s audit. Lycée board chairman Jean Montes responded the next day and set up a time for The Lens to view records.

But on Dec. 12, when The Lens requested a copy of the resume for newly hired interim CEO Gisele Schexnider, no one responded for six weeks.

Even after a Lens reporter handed Adams and Reese attorney Jaimmé Collins another copy of the public records request on Jan. 14, attorneys did not supply it until Jan. 25 — 44 days after the original request.

Louisiana public records laws requires agencies to provide access to public records “immediately” if they are not “in active use.” If they are being used, the custodian must notify the applicant and set a viewing time within three business days. Public agencies in New Orleans often don’t comply with this provision, however.

Lycée’s total bill from January came to $8,440. The school was charged an additional $875 for three hours of work attorneys Lee Reid and Collins performed in December to meet with Montes and review the board’s “open issues.”

Despite the price Lycee was expected to pay for these legal services, much of the advice that the school received appeared to be problematic — in some cases even contradictory. Though Adams and Reese attorney Lee Reid said attorney-client privilege prohibits him from commenting on the specifics of the work detailed in the total $9,000 bill, some of the dates listed on the May 16 invoice coincide with requests The Lens made.

By comparing The Lens’ records with the charges detailed by Adams and Reese, we found:

  • On Jan. 15 and 16, attorneys billed Lycée $2,491 for 11 hours attorneys spent reviewing records requests and drafting responses. On those same days, records show, Schexnider was notified by Audubon Charter School that someone had filed a request for records involving Schexnider being banned from Audubon’s campus when she was the parent of a student there.

Audubon officials sent a letter to Schexnider asking her if there was any reason why the school should not comply with the request. Collins, the attorney for Lycée, responded on Schexnider’s behalf and said the records should not be made public. Despite the request, Audubon ultimately released the records, which showed Schexnider had been banned in 2010 for threatening a student. (Schexnider later said the incident stemmed from her daughter being bullied.)

  • Between January 24 and 29, the firm billed the school $4,001 for 18.8 hours they spent reviewing, analyzing, and responding to records requests. That included a 12-minute phone call between an attorney and a Lens reporter that cost Lycée $38. The time period coincides with The Lens’ inquiries about severance pay and termination paperwork after an audit revealed former Lycée CEO Jill Otis was paid almost $30,000 after she resigned.

In February, within days of a publishing a story about that press release, The Lens obtained emails from a former Lycée board member showing that board members discussed by email with one another — and with their Adams and Reese attorney — whether to offer Otis some kind of severance. One of the email strings even had as its subject line: “Attorney Client privileged communication.”

When The Lens asked Adams and Reese about those emails, which indicated a violation of Louisiana open meetings laws, Collins responded, “Some of your questions solicit a response that would violate the Attorney-Client Privilege that is afforded Lycée Francais. We cannot violate its privilege by providing a response.”

Attorneys are hired to represent their clients’ interests, Caramanica said, and that doesn’t always align with the public interest. “The records custodian is supposed to be an advocate for the public,” he said.

Caramanica advises public agencies not lean on attorneys to fulfill record requests. It’s understandable to occasionally run particularly complex requests by lawyers, he said, but the school should be able to handle most requests in-house.

In an email to The Lens Friday, Montes, chairman of Lycée’s board, wrote that he asked the law firm to handle some requests to allow himself, and Lycée administration, time to focus on day-to-day operations of the school “without constant disruption, distraction and to make sure we are legal and lawful in handling the diverse public record requests Lycée has been subjected to.”

Montes confirmed Friday that he is the school’s custodian of records. But in January even that was in question. Collins, the Adams and Reese attorney, wrote in a Jan. 24 email to The Lens that a reporter’s December request for the same records was ‘invalid’ because “Mr. Montes is not the custodian nor does he have control of public records/documents that have been requested.”

Robert Rachal, an attorney who represents a group of parents who have criticized the board’s leadership, said Adams and Reese’s work was essential. But he also hopes the school can reduce its legal costs in the future.

“It was a necessary and useful expense to get them through a tough period and to fix the problems they were having,” said Rachal, whose clients in January were particularly concerned about the board’s lack of transparency.

Rachal said the amount billed was “certainly consistent with the work I saw being done.”

Lycée’s board now includes three lawyers; it is common for charter schools to utilize board members’ professional skills.

Reid continues to attend school board and committee meetings. He said the firm does pro bono work for the school, but it’s not clear what work has been for free.

When asked her opinion on the legal expenses, Lycée parent Paula Griffin told The Lens via email that she is disappointed that school received January’s bill so late. If that’s any indication of how much the school may be charged for the following months, she wrote, “we must ask the Board of Directors to reconsider their original agreement for legal services with Adams and Reese going forward.”

Another parent, Charles Varley, pointed the finger at Montes, outgoing board members and the administration, calling the legal expenses “the direct consequence of the incompetence and gross mismanagement of our school.”

“His, other board members’ and administration’s atrocious handling of affairs made it necessary to retain the services of an expert attorney and we all know that expert attorneys don’t come cheap,” Varley said.

All of this could have been avoided, he said, had the board “simply done things right in the first place.”

Lycée finance director Julianne Ruocco said the school is already over budget in the area of consultant services, which includes attorneys fees. It has not received any bills from Adams and Reese past those for January services, she said.

The school spent $105,991 of the budgeted $100,853 for consulting firms, including the legal bills, as of May 31. Besides legal work, that part of the budget also goes toward fundraising, development projects, school software and bank service charges.

Despite that overspending, Ruocco said this week that she still projects Lycée’s budget will have an overall surplus when the fiscal year ends June 30.

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