KECI owner Sinclair Television sues city of Missoula for Mountain Water legal fees

Attorneys from Boone Karlberg and Perkins Coie update members of the City Council during a recent meeting on the lingering legal matters yet undecided from the city’s acquisition of Mountain Water Co. A lawsuit filed by Sinclair Television this month seeks access to the legal fees paid to the firms by the city. (Missoula Current file photo)

Sinclair Television, the parent company of KECI, filed suit against the city of Missoula in District Court this month, claiming it violated the station’s right to know by withholding documents related to the acquisition of Mountain Water.

Sinclair, which purchased the station last year, is represented by Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades. The case marks Rhoades’ second effort this year to access information on behalf of a client related to the Mountain Water case and its ensuing legal bills.

On Tuesday, Rhoades said Sinclair isn’t attempting to access documents protected by attorney-client privilege or attorney work product. Rather, he said, it’s seeking invoices representing the roughly $9.2 million in legal fees related to the case.

“There’s a lot of lawyers who work 20 or 30 years and don’t bill $9 million,” said Rhoades. “There’s no doubt it was a complicated case, but at some point, it goes beyond complicated. It’s public information. When the government pays a bill, it’s public information, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

City leaders have never said they were concealing the legal costs surrounding Mountain Water, and for much of the past few years, they have provided weekly updates to the running cost during City Council meetings.

But Rhoades said the public has a right to see the details behind those figures and the work the money paid for. He believes the public also should see correspondence between the city and its legal representation at Boone Karlberg and Perkins Coie.

“We think the public is entitled to see the correspondence between the city and its attorneys and experts to the question, why were the bills so much more than first estimated?” Rhoades said. “Was there such a question asked? If there wasn’t such a question asked, then why not? I don’t think there’s any controversy about that being public information.”

According to the latest suit, KECI requested information in June on the city’s legal fees as they relate to its acquisition of Mountain Water. That request, made by letter, sought all documents related to the case, including invoices and billing statements, agreements and correspondence.

The city denied the request in July, saying the information sought by the television station was protected by attorney-client privilege and attorney work product. The city has given the same answer to all media, though Sinclair looks to test it in court.

“The city cannot dispute that it is a political subdivision against which the right to know provision is enforceable,” the suit claims. “The city has an absolute constitutional duty to make its attorneys’ billing records available to the public.”

Rhoades also took up the issue on behalf of City Council member Jesse Ramos in April, saying the city had prevented Ramos from reviewing attorney fees and billing statements paid to Boone Karlberg and Perkins Coie in the Mountain Water case.

In the letter, Rhoades argued that members of the City Council – and the public – have the right to view the details behind the legal fees as a matter of transparency. Ramos was given an opportunity to view the documents, so long as he signed a non-disclosure agreement, which he declined to do.

“When KECI found out about our efforts to try and get that information, they said they’ve been trying to get it for years and asked me to help them,” Rhoades said. “I’m not charging KECI.”

The city maintains that those billing statements are protected from disclosure because the records contain privileged attorney-client communications, as well as the work product of the attorney.

The city also has said that elements of the water case remain ongoing, and disclosing such statements could reveal strategy. District Court Judge Karen Townsend has already ruled that the city’s legal bills are not discoverable.

The city declined to comment Tuesday, saying the case was now an active legal matter. But it defended its decision to withhold the documents sought earlier this year.

“There’s a great deal that is public information, in that every week for the past number of years, anyone can look at the claims and see how much we paid Boone Karlberg or Perkins Coie,” Ginny Merriam, the city’s communications director, said in April. “We believe the billing statements from the water case are privileged, in part because they often will reveal strategy, and we’re still in litigation.”