By Steve Neavling
Motor City Muckraker
The Detroit Land Bank has repeatedly said it has nothing to hide from federal investigators who are probing the city’s massive demolition program.
But when it comes to answering questions about the hiring of two outside law firms, including pricey powerhouse WilmerHale, to defend the Land Bank, city officials have clamped up.
Washington D.C.-based WilmerHale isn’t just any law firm. It’s one of the largest and most expensive in the nation. The firm has defended accused politicians, banks, Nazi profiteers and terrorists. Lawyers charged up to $1,200 an hour to defend Chicago, Baltimore and Puerto Rico against federal allegations of civil-rights abuses by police.
WilmerHale also has experience representing people accused of wrongdoing by the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP), which is investigating the Land Bank. The FBI is assisting.
The Land Bank’s Board of Directors decided to hire WilmerHale and Michigan-based Miller Canfield after a closed-door meeting. The law firms also will represent the city and Building Authority.
City officials have yet to answers these questions:
1. How is the Land Bank paying for the legal fees?
The Land Bank’s primary source of money is federal funds, which the city is prohibited from using for legal fees. The federal government has doled out more than $170 million to the Land Bank to demolish nearly 9,000 houses since Mayor Mike Duggan took office.
That means local tax dollars may be used for legal fees. The Land Bank also collects money from selling houses.
2. How much are the legal fees?
WilmerHale is known for charging more than $1,000 an hour for legal fees. When a government body hires a law firm, officials usually enter into a contract specifying the legal budget and hourly amount.
It’s unclear whether the Land Bank entered into a contract with the law firms. Motor City Muckraker has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for details.
3. Why was WilmerHale selected?
The Land Bank hasn’t said why WilmerHale was chosen as the law firm. About 1,000 attorneys work for WilmerHale in numerous offices around the globe, but the firm has no presence in Detroit.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.