Heads To Federal Court
Bristol Press Reports:
It's unclear if FOI case
will cost Burlington taxpayers
"Schwartz and Chinni fail to grasp the fundamental fact that the clients - in this case, the taxpayers of Harwinton, Burlington and Connecticut - have a right to see any and all billing records."
By JACQUELINE MANNING
The Bristol Press
BURLINGTON - Legal fees continue to mount for Region 10 taxpayers as the civil-rights case involving school district officials and Burlington teenager Avery Doninger heads to Federal Court on Wednesday.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark Kravitz is scheduled to hear arguments in U.S. District Court in New Haven at 9 a.m. on Wednesday in the preliminary injunction hearing, for which Doninger's attorney, John Schoenhorn, initially filed in state court in July.
Schoenhorn is seeking a temporary injunction to overturn the May 25th Lewis Mills High School 2008 senior class election result for Student Council. Schoenhorn alleges high school Principal Karissa Niehoff and Superintendent Paula Schwartz unconstitutionally stripped Doninger of the junior class secretary title, seized her campaign T-shirts, barred the teenager from delivering a speech to the upcoming senior class and prohibited her from running as 2008 class secretary.
Schwartz and Niehoff were offended by a degrading comment Doninger posted on a personal blog site while off school grounds about the school's central office canceling the high school band showdown "Jam-fest." According to the election ballots Schwartz has released in the face of a Freedom of Information complaint, Doninger won the election by write-in vote despite her name being absent from the ballot. School officials repressed the vote and still refused to acknowledge it.
Region 10 School Board Attorney Chris Chinni said the case exhibits would be submitted to Kravitz today and made available to the public and press.
Meanwhile, it's still unclear how much money Harwinton and Burlington residents have shelled out for Niehoff's and Schwartz's defense to date, as well as the final bill to come with two law firms backing the school officials in the civil-rights case.
Attorneys Thomas Gerarde and Katherine Rule of Howd & Ludorf suddenly emerged as part of the defense team on July 26, when they filed appearances and a motion to have the case moved from state to federal court.
While Chinni referred to the hiring of the Howd and Ludorf attorney's as "a private matter" and denied the existence of any retainer agreement last week, Gerarde said on Thursday that the Region 10 Board of Education's insurance company, Massamont Insurance, was paying the firm's attorney fees. He also said Howd & Ludorf has a retainer agreement with Massamont Insurance for the Doninger case.
Andy Thibault, author of "Law and Justice in Everyday Life" and writer of the Connecticut Law Tribune's award-winning column "Cool Justice," made a request under the Freedom of Information Act on Friday to Schwartz in yet another attempt to find out how much taxpayers are shelling out for the case. Thibault requested a copy of Howd & Ludorf's retainer agreement and any other documents in existence with Massamont related to the Doninger case.
Chinni responded to the FOI request in part: "The Board is not a party to the retainer agreement between Howd & Ludorf and Massamont Insurance, and does not possess and never has possessed a copy of that agreement. Neither Massamont Insurance nor Howd &Ludorf is a public agency, and their agreement is not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Any correspondence between Mrs. Schwartz and/or Ms. Niehoff and Howd &Ludorf regarding this matter is exempt from disclosure pursuant to the attorney-client privilege."
"You can run and juggle - but you can't hide theses records indefinitely," Thibault responded. "FOI law requires that records related to the performance of government function must be produced."
Thibault, who is currently writing a story on the Avery Doninger case for Connecticut Magazine (a sister publication of The Bristol Press), [said Chinni] has already "milked the public trough" for more than $60,000 in unrelated legal fees from January to June of 2007.
According to Chinni's billing records, this was the figure the school district has paid to Chinni up to six weeks before the civil-rights action was filed.
"Schwartz and Chinni fail to grasp the fundamental fact that the clients - in this case, the taxpayers of Harwinton, Burlington and Connecticut - have a right to see any and all billing records," said Thibault.