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Billing records show Balch attorneys played substantial role in state superintendent search, alleged smear campaign

Josh Moon

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Billing records obtained by the Alabama Political Reporter show that attorneys from the law firm Balch & Bingham were heavily involved in the Alabama State Department’s flawed superintendent search that landed Michael Sentance and was paid thousands of dollars to counsel and coach department lawyers and a state school board member.

Those records, provided to APR by a source who agreed to share them on the condition of anonymity, show that three attorneys from Balch & Bingham — Dorman Walker, Lane Knight and John Naramore — charged ALSDE thousands to handle numerous tasks relating to the search, including establishing a search process and developing a “script” for ALSDE attorney Juliana Dean to use when she spoke to school board members about the search.

Balch & Bingham attorneys, the records show, also drove to Montgomery and to “coach” both Dean and school board member Mary Scott Hunter before they answered questions from a legislative committee that was investigating the superintendent search process.

Asked about the use of Balch & Bingham attorneys for tasks that appear to be either so mundane that the ALSDE counsel should handle them or that are of a personal nature and outside of the scope of their daily job duties, an ALSDE spokesman declined to answer the specific questions and instead focused on the fact that the information had become public.

“As I’m sure you know, although information related to a public entity’s attorney identity, rate/cost and time are public, details of the work performed by attorneys for their clients are not,” director of communications Michael Sibley wrote in an email response. “If you received an invoice detailing that work, that information is protected by attorney-client privilege. Because your questions encroach on that privilege, we will not be able to answer your specific questions, but in general, any work performed by Balch & Bingham for the State Board or its members or the State Department or its employees or officials would relate to their official duties.

APR asked Sibley why such billing information, when covered by taxpayer dollars, wouldn’t be considered public information, but that question did not receive a response.

ALSDE is still being hampered by the flawed search, even two years later.

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Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey, who was considered the frontrunner for the job, has filed a lawsuit against Hunter and others at the state department for concocting and carrying out a scheme to prevent him from landing the job. A Montgomery judge last month dismissed all but Hunter and another ALSDE lawyer from the suit, including Dean.

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Pouncey filed his lawsuit in Feb. 2016 and it was announced after that date that because of the legal action, ALSDE would be on the hook for private attorneys to represent Dean, Hunter and two other ALSDE attorneys, James Ward and Susan Crowther.

But the records obtained by APR show that Balch & Bingham attorneys had long been providing legal guidance to the four.

The detailed bills from Balch & Bingham include charges for things such as reviewing a WSFA news story about Pouncey’s “planned lawsuit,” reviewing emails that were requested from Dean by state school board members and planning for ways to combat an effort from an education advocacy group led by Larry Lee to rescind the superintendent selection.

The bills also include several charges related to legal guidance for Hunter, which is, at best, a gray area. School board members clamored for months about hiring an attorney that would represent the board, and ultimately last year moved forward with hiring Lewis Gillis. Prior to that hire, however, it was the policy of the board that it was represented in all legal matters, unless the board took specific action otherwise, by Dean.

But on Nov. 1, 2016, the billing records show a $146.25 charge for a “talk” between Dorman Walker and Hunter about “her prospective testimony before the (legislative) committee.” There was another talk with Hunter on Nov. 8., and a conference on Nov. 9. The related charges totaled $1,170.

The records also show that Balch & Bingham attorneys coached Ward and Crowther prior to their appearances before the legislative committee and that the firm reviewed Open Records Act requests from media outlets and determined which documents should be turned over and redacted.

 

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