Sheriff Wall’s legal bills top $40,000 | SteamboatToday.com

Sheriff Wall’s legal bills top $40,000

County refuses payment on $8,500 of disputed services

Brandon Gee

— Routt County taxpayers paid a private law firm more than $40,000 for Sheriff’s Office legal services in 2008.

The expenditure is separate from the $318,000 the county was projected to spend in 2008 for the Routt County Attorney’s Office. The county attorney’s office usually provides legal services for all county departments. But Sheriff Gary Wall’s frequent quarrels with the county commissioners led them to advise Wall to seek his own legal counsel two years ago. The county attorney ultimately represents the Routt County Board of Commissioners.

“It became clear two years ago : that we were likely to be in direct confrontation,” County Attorney John Merrill said.

As a result, much of the work performed by The Law Offices of Ralph A. Cantafio for Wall includes legal advice about how to operate his department, work on personnel matters and other “things we normally would have helped him with,” Merrill said.

The Routt County Board of Commissioners did not pay about $8,500 in legal service invoices submitted for payment in 2008 by Wall, believing some services performed by Cantafio’s firm on behalf of Wall were not legitimate public expenses.

Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush defined a legitimate expense as “in general, anything that is pertinent to normal sheriff’s department business that under other circumstances the sheriff’s department would rely on our county attorney for.”

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The $8,500 withholding appears to include all or a portion of a disputed $6,700 invoice that the commissioners believed involved the internal affairs investigation of a former employee and possible criminal chargers. In the case of an internal affairs investigation, commissioners wanted to know why the investigation was not handled within the Sheriff’s Office. In the case of the criminal charges, they wonder why the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office was not used.

Wall refused to provide more information last year to justify the bill, claiming that doing so would force him to relinquish his attorney-client privilege and “jeopardize the sovereignty of my office.”

The disputed services are thought to involve former Sheriff John Warner and former Deputy Lance Eldridge; both men were referenced in comments and correspondence between the sheriff and commissioners last year regarding the invoice. Eldridge delivered damaging testimony against Wall in the July jury trial that led to the sheriff’s conviction for driving while ability impaired.

Mitsch Bush said Mark Fischer, an attorney at Cantafio’s firm who represents Wall, has not contested the sum the county ultimately decided to pay. Asked Thursday, Wall would not say whether he made up the difference personally.

“I don’t want to talk about anything like that,” Wall said.

Wall also would not specify the type of legal services he asks Cantafio’s firm to perform, saying only that he relies on the firm “anytime that I think there is a legal issue that I need consultation on.”

The sheriff has not yet submitted any legal services invoices for payment in 2009.

Overall, the Sheriff’s Office finished the year between the $4.3 million it originally was budgeted and an additional $80,000 supplemental budget approved in November. Earlier in the year, Routt County accountants said the Sheriff’s Office was on track to overshoot its budget by $300,000 and the commissioners took drastic steps to curtail spending, such as instituting a Sheriff’s Office hiring freeze – prior to a freeze that now applies countywide – and limiting the department’s overtime and mileage.