On Wednesday night, three members of the Newton County Board of Commissioners announced a deal they had struck with the County Attorney to cap his legal fees at $800,000 per year. This cap on fees starts at the beginning of the 2016 fiscal year: July 2015.
This announcement comes as pressure continues to mount for the BOC to rein in the accelerating legal fees being charged by the Craig law firm which are projected to top $1.2 Million this fiscal year. The continued challenges of Mr. Craig as county attorney, however, stem not only from the amount of the legal fees paid to his firm, but from concerns about the conflicts of interest, questionable judgement and what appears to be a misrepresentation of facts surrounding the Bear Creek Reservoir application being considered by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Mr. Craig, Newton County Attorney for over 38 years, has been confronted in recent months at public meetings by citizens demanding an explanation for why legal fees charged by his firm far exceed those paid by counties of similar size and by those of surrounding counties. He has been the subject of an expose by Atlanta’s 11 Alive News questioning his many roles. These varying roles create clear conflicts of interest when he functions both as county attorney and water consultant, and as such recommends engineers he partners with on other water projects, approves their contracts with Newton County and oversees their work. Additional public and media concerns have been expressed about the millions he owes in federal taxes, and the propriety of his continuing to represent our county under those circumstances.
Recently, Mr. Craig led a delegation of Newton County officials to meet with the Corps of Engineers in Savannah for an update on the status of the 404 permit. The 404 permit is required by the Corps for Newton County to commence construction of the Bear Creek Reservoir after nearly 17 years and over $21 Million of expense to Newton County taxpayers. A memorandum of the meeting released as a result of a Freedom of Information Request suggest a skeptical Corp of Engineers interrogating Mr. Craig about the questionable justification for Bear Creek and the failure of Mr. Craig to provide several studies dealing with the current and anticipated water demands of the county. Almost beyond belief was Mr. Craig’s explanation that one study he had commissioned was only in draft form and the others sought by the Corps were prepared by incompetent consultants. These were the same consultants chosen by Mr. Craig to do at least two of those studies.
Also atop the news is the controversial proposal to privatize the Newton County landfill which suddenly came to light after the Athens law firm, whose senior partner happens to be the brother in law of Mr. Craig, lost an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court to prevent a private landfill from locating on a tract of adjacent property to the Newton County landfill. The owner of the site seeking the zoning certification to allow it to operate a private landfill is a former business partner of Henry Lassiter who Mr. Craig had represented over the years in various matters. The Lease and Operating Agreement for Greenhill P3 to take over the current county owned and operated landfill was negotiated by an attorney selected by Mr. Craig, but who was, according to his own statement, representing both Greenhill and Newton County.
The list of questionable and self-serving actions by Mr. Craig appears never ending. Mr. Craig continues to not only insert himself in legal issues, but policy and political issues as well. Further, it appears that he has cultivated a culture of dependence by BOC members, which demands his involvement in every decision of the Board of Commissioners. Mr. Craig has become so entrenched that it is no wonder that Commissioner Maddox cited as important that the cap agreement on fees” maintains continuity and consistency for the county in terms of its legal counsel.”
We are thankful that there will be at least an $800K limit to the out-of-control legal spending of Newton County, but make no mistake the County was no winner in this agreement with Mr. Craig. When compared with the legal budgets of similar sized counties, that range of fees is still exorbitant. More problematic than the costs incurred for legal services is how Mr. Craig’s continued representation impacts the reputation and integrity of Newton County.
Three commissioners may feel that this plan can calm the boiling water of public dissatisfaction over Mr. Craig, but they have again misjudged the people of Newton County. This public relations ploy was prematurely announced to the press prior to being vetted by all of the Commissioners and can only be seen as an attempt to distract the public from the real issues. We must ask is this an attempt by Mr. Craig to shift the focus from the real issues facing Newton County? And is he being aided in his actions by three commissioners willing to be pawns in this continuing power play?