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Originally published Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 8:06 PM

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City attorney targets law firm's contract for police cases

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes wants to end a long-standing contract with a law firm that has handled cases involving police. The proposal would result in hiring more staff for the City Attorney's Office to handle cases.

Seattle Times staff reporter

For nearly 40 years, Seattle police officers in legal trouble have had top-dollar representation from one of the city's most prestigious law firms.

But that could end starting next year under a proposal by the City Attorney's Office.

City Attorney Pete Holmes is proposing that the city's long-standing annual contract with Stafford Frey Cooper not be renewed at the end of the year. Under Holmes' proposal, officers would be represented by the City Attorney's Office and, in the more complex cases, including those stemming from an officer's use of deadly force, outside counsel would be hired through a competitive bidding process, said Darby DuComb, Holmes' chief of staff.

The move, which the City Attorney's Office said would save Seattle an estimated $1 million annually, has been met with strong opposition by the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, as well as the law firm, which stands to lose millions.

Stafford Frey Cooper handles about 30 cases each year for the city, at an hourly billing of about $275. The City Attorney's Office rate is $100 per hour, according to the city.

Holmes, in an Aug. 30 memo to Mayor Mike McGinn, said that since 1999 the city has paid Stafford Frey Cooper about $18 million for representing Seattle police in tort litigation.

"It's a tough time budget-wise," Holmes said Tuesday. "We can pay four times the fee to Stafford Frey, and then wonder why we can't put officers on the street. There's a direct connection."

Seattle police administrators declined to comment on the proposal. Holmes' office said it plans to meet with Police Chief John Diaz to discuss the change.

Rich O'Neill, president of the police guild, said it plans to file an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission in response to Holmes' proposal. He said that Stafford Frey Cooper is "world-renowned in their defense of the city" and is concerned that officers won't see the same level of skill from assistant city attorneys.

O'Neill said that ending the contract with the firm is not something the city attorney can do because the guild's contract requires the city to follow "past practice" in matters involving police litigation. While the terminology is vague, O'Neill said it means the firm has to stay on board.

"It's clearly a mandatory subject of bargaining, and we intend to defend that," O'Neill said. "We think it is not in the best interest of the city."

In a letter to the police guild, Holmes said, "the selection of counsel for city employees is a decision vested within the discretion of the City Attorney, and is not subject to collective bargaining."

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In a statement e-mailed to The Seattle Times on Tuesday, Stafford Frey Cooper lawyers Ted Buck, Anne Bremner and Steve Larson defended the firm's work on behalf of police. They said that since 1990 "there have been only three adverse jury monetary verdicts against a Seattle police officer or the city for police misconduct, two of them for less than $7,500."

In the past 25 years, Seattle has seen a trial-win record in police litigation that "surpasses any similarly sized city in the country," the e-mail said.

But Holmes countered that he's "a competitive lawyer" and he disputes any "notion that we would do anything other than vindicate officers when they deserve to be vindicated."

"I do not bring cases in-house to lose, but I do what saves the city money," Holmes said.

City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, a lawyer of 34 years who spent eight years heading the civil division at the King County Prosecutor's Office, said that she's familiar with complaints from different departments about legal services transitioning in-house.

"They're qualified to do this," Bagshaw said of the City Attorney's Office. "We do need to work with our guild and our police officers to make sure they have their faith in their lawyers."

Both Bagshaw and Councilmember Tim Burgess said they support opening up the bidding process to other law firms. The annual contract with Stafford Frey Cooper has been renewed every year with little to no review and no chance for other firms to bid for the contract, the City Attorney's Office said.

The City Attorney's Office said that Stafford Frey Cooper would be eligible to bid on representing the city on individual cases and likely would be awarded some cases because of the firm's expertise. With the increase in cases from ending the contract with Stafford Frey Cooper, the City Attorney's Office is asking the mayor and City Council to sign off on the hiring of three lawyers, a paralegal and a legal assistant.

McGinn supports the plan to not renew the contract with Stafford Frey Cooper but does not support hiring that many new staff members, according to the City Attorney's Office.

DuComb said Holmes has talked about ending the contract with Stafford Frey Cooper since his 2009 election, mostly because of concerns that there has never been a competitive process for retaining the firm's lawyers for police issues.

Some in the law-enforcement community have questioned whether the move to no longer use the firm exclusively was because the police guild and attorneys at Stafford Frey Cooper supported incumbent Tom Carr when Holmes ran for city attorney.

"For us it's just dollars and cents," DuComb said. "We're looking to save money on outside counsel fees."

Seattle Times staff reporter Emily Heffter contributed to this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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