Charges inflated by $55,000

By Trina Trice

For a complete text version of the Clayton County Board of Education's petition for Fee Arbitration against fees charged by Attorneys Terry Jackson and Lee Sexton, see page 11A and 12A.

Fees totaling more than $70,000 aren't what the Clayton County Board of Education is willing to pay Attorneys Terry Jackson and Lee Sexton.

The school board is disputing Jackson and Sexton's fees and are waiting for a fee arbitration hearing that has yet to be announced.

According to documents obtained by the News Daily, the school board believes the attorneys' fees are inflated by $55,000.

The documents are being used in the fee arbitration to be handled by the Georgia Bar Association.

The board hired Jackson at its Jan. 13 called meeting to handle the removal of former Superintendent Dan Colwell.

A majority of the board voted to retain Jackson, who later commissioned Sexton's services for assistance.

The board fired Colwell at the same meeting. After Colwell accused the board of acting illegally, they later suspended Colwell with pay pending a hearing that never happened.

In a February called meeting, the board and Colwell reached an agreement that included his resignation and a $232,000 buyout for Colwell.

"Due to receiving the bill for $70,849.50, it has placed a tremendous burden on the school board," the board's fee arbitration petition states.

"We were led to believe that this would only cost between $10,000 and $15,000. This was communicated to the board and the Clayton County community. Members of the community have voiced their opinions regarding this bill. We, as board members, know that the bill is an excessive amount."

The board believes it had been billed for "items that should be a part of normal fees," such as the attorneys reading newspaper stories to keep abreast of media coverage of the board's attempt to remove Colwell.

Included in Jackson's fee arbitration petition was a detailed explanation of services he rendered to the board.

On Jan. 15 Jackson stated he "read newspapers and media accounts of story" regarding Colwell's removal.

The board asserts that not only did Jackson give a specific range of what he'd charge the board, but he also told them they wouldn't have to pay for Sexton's assistance. Instead, Jackson said he would pay Sexton on his own.

"Attorney Jackson explained that Attorney Sexton would be assisting him and he would be responsible for paying Attorney Sexton," the document stated.

The board apparently offered Jackson a flat fee for his services.

On Feb. 3, "the Board voted to allow the school board's attorney Gary Sams to offer Terry Jackson $25,000 for his entire services rendered and he would be responsible for paying any others he obtained assistance from," the petition stated.

Jackson said the board didn't have a problem with the bill until Feb. 2 when he held a meeting attended by Board members LaToya Walker and Linda Crummy, Board Chairwoman Nedra Ware, and Board Vice Chairwoman Connie Kitchens.

"LaToya Walker stated that if counsel cared about the kids of Clayton County we would agree to cap our fees at $20,000, despite close to 300 hours of legal work," Jackson said in his petition. "The chief complaint of Walker and the other board members involved were that they were catching ?heat' from their constituents for the amount of the bill once it became public, not about the quality or end result of the objective they hired counsel for."

Jackson and Sexton have recently increased their total fees to $83,843.50. The new amount covers Jackson and Sexton's counsel, court reporter fees, and additional hours the attorneys spent "finalizing the settlement documents" for Colwell's buyout.

Sexton said he will donate his part of the fees to charity if he and Jackson win the fee arbitration.