Stratford Town Attorney Tim Bishop has defended the administration’s handling of the legal actions taken in an attempt to recover severance funds paid to a handful of former Mayor Jim Miron’s appointees, including two mayoral aides, Eric Castater and Debron Wilson.
“We’re not paying a penny for legal fees on those cases. They are on contingency. It’s one of my innovations," Bishop said this week.
“In the past the Town would pay lawyers an hourly rate to collect money, sometimes spending more than they collected.
"Since taking over at the end of 2009, we don’t pay lawyers to do collections. We find lawyers to take these cases on contingency. They get a percentage of the recovery. It’s up to them to handle it efficiently and reach a successful outcome.”
The issue came to the surface several weeks ago when it was announced that Miron administrative appointee Eric Castater won his trial in the controversy over 'cash out' payments after 2009 elections. The Town under Mayor John Harkins argued that payments violated written contract between the Town and the employee. The decision in the Castater ruling has been appealed.
Bishop was responding to questions asking how much the town paid in pursuing legal cases against some of former Mayor Miron's officials.
One resident wrote Stratford Patch, “I am curious if legal fees exceeded those "over payments." I am not defending nor condemning the Miron administration, but it would be interesting to see if we are spending more on legal fees than on assumed settlements.”
Bishop agreed that on its face, he understands the concern.
“It’s hard to make money on a $4-5,000 contingency case so I try to give a lawyer that takes on contingency work enough cases so that they will average out to be fair.
“I think that in this case there are people who wanted to see the matter pursued on principle.
“Others felt that what happened was not only reprehensible but that the economics warranted action.
“Either way you look at it, the precedential value of the situation is dangerous,” Bishop said. “I believe the number that a small team of insiders walked away with was close to $250,000. They put together that scheme in a matter of weeks following their loss at the polls” in late 2009.
“There was no money in the budget, there was never a plan to pay these benefits, there was no notice to the Town and no attempt made to seek approval by the Town Council as required, I believe, by the Charter.
“It’s not just a simple case of unprofessionalism or bad sportsmanship,” Bishop continued. “”It’s a dangerous misinterpretation of the Charter. If it stands up, then any Mayor can secretly gather his team in a smoke-filled room (or sound-proof executive office), decide how much they are going to divert from Town resources and how they are going to whack it up, leave with fat checks in their pockets and never return.”
That view was strongly refuted by former Mayor Miron, who saw the recent court victory in the case as vindication of his actions.
Miron said recently, "As I had repeatedly stated, the 'cash out' process used for separating town employees who were mayoral appointees was legal and proper and substantially the same process every other employee leaving town service uses.”
“The taxpayers never approved that scenario and I think they are justifiably offended by what was done. I think it is important to establish that the Charter protects the taxpayers from self-dealing of this nature and to make sure that the people who did it are punished and that it never happens again.”
Bishop noted that he was giving the official opinion of the Harkins administration.
“I’m not sure if the Town or the administration has an ‘official’ position on this,” Bishop said. “If they do, it is likely what I said above.
“Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken with on both sides of the aisle feel the same way.
“The limited few who disagree are solidly in the Miron camp; their lips permanently stained by the additives in the cool-aid!”
Miron was unphased and predicted recently that the appeal will also fail.
"Mayor John Harkins needlessly used Mr. Castater as a pawn in his post election 'scorch and burn' tactics against me and my administration.
"I would hope that with this decision by the court, after a full trial, Mayor Harkins would conclude that the court system is not the proper forum for his political posturing,” Miron said.