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SJC County Council Blows Out Budget on Law Firm, Hides How Money was Spent

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St. Joseph County Council holds meeting to vote on hiring the law firm of Ice Miller in a lawsuit against the County Commission regarding redistricting maps

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The St. Joseph County Council spent nearly double what it budgeted on legal fees for a law firm to work on a “Public Affairs” strategy regarding redistricting, according to documents obtained by REAL News Michiana through a Freedom of Information Act Request. However, exactly what that money was spent on is being hidden by the county under what officials are calling “attorney-client privilege.”

The county approved a budget of not-to-exceed $36,000 for the law firm of Ice Miller to head the public affairs strategy. But, according to invoices, the county spent $69,825.50.

According to an article by the South Bend Tribune, the County Council was planning to set aside $50,000 from unspent COVID-19 money. Meaning, the council not only exceeded the $36,000 budget by nearly double, it also blew out a $14,000 buffer by nearly $20,000.

Furthermore, what the money was spent on exactly is not being disclosed to the public. Every single line item expense in the invoices obtained by RNM through a public records request is redacted. RNM attempted to get unredacted copies, however, an attorney for the county claimed the redactions were part of “attorney-client privilege.”

“As stated in the letter, the redactions pertain to attorney-client privilege, and/or the exception for confidential financial information.  The exception for confidential financial information is found at Ind. Code  5-14-3-4(a)(5).  The exception for attorney-client privilege is found at Ind. Code 5-14-3-4(a)(1) (an exception for “those declared confidential by state statute”) and Ind. Code 34-46-3-1(1) (the state statute creating attorney-client privilege).” Deputy Attorney for St. Joseph County, Brandie Ecker stated in an email to RNM.

“I’m confused how PR (public relations) representation is covered under attorney-client privilege. If that is the case, any attorney can provide any service (such as catering or janitorial) and that would be considered protected under attorney-client privilege. This is obviously not the intent of the Indiana statute.” RNM responded. 

Ecker did not respond to RNM’s concerns about the “attorney-client” privilege claim.

The Democrat controlled Council has since hired Ice Miller to represent them a second time in a lawsuit against the Republican controlled County Commission. This time regarding redistricting maps passed by the commission late last year. It’s unclear how much money is being spent on these current legal issues.

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