The Seattle city attorney’s office is high above City Hall on the 20th floor of the Columbia Center. More than 90 attorneys work there, usually out of sight, out of mind.
That was until this week.
A line item in Mayor Tim Burgess’ budget proposal stood out. The city needs to fill a $13.4 million shortfall, due to higher than expected settlements and outside counsel costs.
It added fuel to what is normally a quiet, down ballot race.
“It's shocking and it raises real troubling questions about Pete Holmes' management of outside counsel costs,” said Scott Lindsay, who is challenging Holmes for the right to be city attorney.
The former public safety advisor for Ed Murray left his position to challenge the two-term incumbent. Already, both candidates have raised six-figure sums to campaign, more than the previous two election cycles. In fact, in 2009, Holmes ran unopposed.
Lindsay has pounced on the budget issue, noting in particular the use of outside counsel.
“We’re spending like a drunken sailor, when we have a massive, the city and the city attorney’s office, has a massive budget deficit,” he said.
He points in particular to the hiring of a more than $800-an-hour lawyer to handle an employee retirement issue. Lindsay also is quick to note that two different law firms have hosted fundraisers for Holmes in recent months, and both have earned millions in city contracts.
“Why is Pete Holmes going to law firms that have city attorney's office contracts and asking them to host fundraisers? Why is he then awarding them – within a matter of just days – additional contracts?” he asked.
Public records show that in fact the city attorney’s office did award a contract to the firm within days of the fundraiser.
However, the normally calm Holmes raised his voice at the suggestion.
“Those letters that may have been signed on a given day were probably in negotiation weeks before then, and in negotiation more over by someone completely separate and apart from my campaign staff,” said the incumbent.
Holmes painted the suggestion as desperate.
“I won't say it's insulting, but I do understand why someone who is not qualified for this office would want to throw as much stuff up and see what sticks,” he said.
Holmes noted that law firms have also donated to his opponent, and “Are they going to be barred forever from receiving city contracts under his administration? I think you find he has disqualified some very significant firms if that’s the case.”
Lindsay does have $500 contributions from K&L Gates, Alaska CEO Brad Tilden, Mariners Owner John Stanton, and the Sinegals of Costco fame. He has pledged to not award contracts to his donors. Former Governor Christine Gregoire, his mother-in-law, has also made a donation to the campaign.
Holmes' list of donors includes lawyers, lobbyists, and friends, and a top donation of $350.
Wayne Barnett of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission says there has been no complaint filed by either side.
The city attorney’s office said in a statement on Friday sensing the scrutiny of over the so-called Judgement Claims Fund:
“A recent supplemental appropriation to the City of Seattle’s Judgment Claims fund has attracted significant attention, and some media coverage has mistakenly suggested that the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) is responsible for setting the annual fund amount and holding expenditures to that amount. This advisory provides information regarding the fund. The Judgment/Claims Subfund (JCF) provides for the payment of legal claims and suits brought against the City government. It also covers other costs associated with litigation, including outside counsel expenses, and payment of expenses in some cases where the City seeks to recover damages to City property. Not all outside counsel expenses are covered by the JCF. In some cases, client departments have specialized legal needs unrelated to litigation covered by the JCF and pay for such outside counsel work out of the department's operating budget.” It added that, “The CAO prefers whenever possible to do the City’s legal work in house. But the CAO does not have sufficient permanent staff to do so in years with significantly above average legal needs. When a need for legal work arises, the CAO must either do the work or find outside counsel. In addition to capacity concerns, conflicts and specialized expertise may also drive the need for outside counsel. In 2016 and 2017, the City’s legal needs required the expenditure of more money than in past years on outside counsel.”