At an oddly contentious hearing before the Legislature’s Contract Review Committee on Thursday, attorneys from the Alabama Attorney General’s Office and the Alabama Department of Corrections lobbed thinly-veiled shots at the other agency over the handling of several lawsuits related to Alabama’s prisons.
During separate presentations, AG’s office chief counsel Katherine Robertson and ADOC assistant general counsel Mandy Speirs made vague references – and at least one pointed reference – to questionable decisions made at the other department in regards to tens of millions of dollars in legal contracts.
Robertson, for example, seemed to indicate that the AG’s office was unhappy with the amount of legal services contracts farmed out by ADOC to one attorney – Bill Lunsford – over the course of the last five years and noted that the AG’s office was in the process of now handling “80 percent of those cases in house.”
Asked to clarify Robertson’s statement, Amanda Priest, director of communications for the AG’s office, said in a statement: “It is the goal of the AGO to provide efficient and cost-effective representation to ADOC and to reduce reliance on outside counsel.”
Speirs, during her presentation, noted that the AG’s office stripped the ADOC attorneys of their deputy AG statuses in April, preventing them from handling any of the current legal matters stemming from that department, including prisoner lawsuits.
Speirs also for the first time stated publicly that AG Steve Marshall has blocked ADOC and the state from settling at least two of the federal lawsuits brought by the Department of Justice, which are costing the state millions of dollars in legal fees, and which – as Rep. Chris England and others have noted numerous times – are unlikely to be won by the state.
“The attorney general’s office has prevented us from settling this (DOJ) case multiple times,” Speirs said, while being questioned by England about the ever-growing costs.
Marshall has stated publicly that he would not accept a consent decree from the DOJ, but Speirs’ comments were the first time it’s been stated publicly that ADOC attorneys wanted to settle the case but were thwarted by Marshall.
Priest said she couldn’t address the decision to not settle the cases, because it tied directly to attorney-client privilege.
That DOJ lawsuit, filed in 2020, alleges the state has violated prisoners’ constitutional rights by failing to stop guard and inmate violence and by keeping prisoners housed in inhumane conditions. Reports from investigations conducted by the DOJ highlight horrific abuses. The federal court has ordered the state to begin increasing the number of guards and to make other institutional changes.
England repeatedly asked Speirs on Thursday if the number of correctional officers today was higher than the day the lawsuit was filed. Speirs could not answer the question, although she said this year’s recruiting class will be its largest.
What drew most of the Committee’s questions, though, were the number of contracts going to one attorney – Bill Lunsford. On Thursday’s agenda alone, Lunsford had 21 separate contracts for nearly $15 million total.
“Can one attorney even handle that many cases?” asked Sen. Greg Albritton.
Speirs and Robertson said that the contracts for Lunsford came about because there was overlap in the handling of several of the cases and that spreading those cases out to other attorneys might actually cost the state more.
Robertson, however, seemed to indicate that the AG’s office didn’t necessarily agree with that approach. She made a point during her presentation to note that the contracts for Lunsford pre-dated the AG’s office taking over all ADOC legal matters. She also indicated that Lunsford might not receive any new contracts from the state.
“I think there was a feeling or a strategy in the 2019-2020-2021 timeframe that was to keep all of these lawsuits at the same firm handling the big three cases,” Robertson said. “I have not seen any new contracts for this individual so perhaps that’s something that we’re getting away from.”
England noted, however, that Lunsford could be paid “into the hundreds of millions” for his existing cases, since the DOJ lawsuits won’t go to trial until next year.
The contracts will all be approved. The Contract Review Committee has the authority to hold a contract for a period of time