Legal News - Philadelphia paid law firms $111 million for advice

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Everyone knows that it helps to have friends in high places, as was proven again yesterday when statistics released by Gov. Ed Rendell showed that 20 high-powered law firms have earned $111 million working for the Rendell administration.

The administration released a list of outside counsels hired by various state agencies from early 2003 to mid-2007. It's topped by four prominent Philadelphia-based firms: Blank Rome, Pepper Hamilton, Ballard Spahr, for which Mr. Rendell worked before becoming governor, and Wolf Block.

Mr. Rendell, who was mayor of Philadelphia for eight years in the 1990s, became governor in January 2003. Since then, Blank Rome has received $20.2 million for contracted legal work, far ahead of Pepper Hamilton, at $13.5 million; Ballard Spahr, at $8.4 million; and Wolf Block, at $6 million.

The only Pittsburgh-based firm on the list, Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, came in 10th, at $4.4 million.

One surprise was that Blank Rome headed the list, because it's generally considered a "Republican" law firm, meaning one that often gets state legal business when Republicans hold office. A top official with the firm, David Girard-diCarlo, has strong ties to ex-Republican Gov. Tom Ridge.

"These are taxpayers' dollars, and it's always the taxpayer who pays," said Russ Diamond of Lebanon, head of PA Clean Sweep and a frequent critic of state government.

"I don't think it makes a difference whether the top firm is [hired by] a Republican or Democratic governor. They are all part of the political establishment. When big government makes big deals, big dollars are involved."

Mr. Rendell worked for Ballard Spahr in 2001 and 2002, reportedly earning $250,000 a year. His chief of staff in his first term as governor, John Estey, just went to work for Ballard Spahr.

Mr. Rendell last year named Robin Wiessmann as acting state treasurer, after Treasurer Bob Casey won election to the U.S. Senate. Ms. Wiessmann is married to Ken Jarin, a prominent lawyer at Ballard Spahr.

Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said that Blank Rome handles numerous issues for the state Insurance Department, including an insolvency case regarding Reliance Insurance. It has also handled many bond transactions.

Pepper Hamilton is doing work related to the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia and litigation regarding state police.

Although the third highest paid on the list, Ballard Spahr has gotten a lot of legal work on transportation issues recently from the Rendell administration.

It is now working on a $1.75 million contract for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation on Mr. Rendell's proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator and the state's desire to place first-time tolls on Interstate 80.

Mr. Ardo said Ballard Spahr has "expertise in corporate and public finance," including the use of tax-exempt bonds.

"PennDOT attorneys do not have the same level of expertise," he said.

He added that "although a number of attorneys at the firm had previously served the administration, that did not influence the decision in any way."

Another Philadelphia law firm, Cozen O'Connor, which didn't make the Top 20 list, has been hired for advice on the turnpike privatization issue, but it's working for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, said commission spokesman Bill Capone.

Cozen O'Connor helped the turnpike commission write a 50-year lease with PennDOT, a so-called "public-public partnership," called for by Act 44 of 2007.

The commission will pay PennDOT $750 million a year under the agreement for road and bridge repairs.

The Cozen O'Connor firm had employed Philadelphia lawyer Tad Decker before Mr. Rendell, in late 2004, named him chairman of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Mr. Decker recently left the gaming board and returned to the law firm.

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