Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Pima County doesn’t seem too eager to cut a check to Bill Risner, the attorney who represented the Pima County Democratic Party in the recent court battle over sloppy vote-counting procedures.
Risner has yet to prove his most sensational charge: The county flipped the results of the RTA election that established a half-cent sales tax to pay for transportation projects.
But he did show that the county had some lax procedures that needed to be fixed—and county officials have already taken steps to make the system more secure.
Risner also won a court fight over whether computer databases used to count votes qualified as public records. Following the court case, Risner delivered a bill for about $300,000 for his legal costs.
Pima County objected to the bill, arguing that Risner had not “substantially prevailed” in court because he had asked for more than 1,000 computer files and Judge Michael Miller had declared only two of them to be public record. While Risner had prepared to appeal that decision, the supervisors buckled under pressure from election-integrity activists during a raucous Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting and turned over most of the records in question.
“It feels like we won,” Risner says. “We got a bunch of data.”
Risner complains that the county is “nitpicking” his bill: “There’s nothing they’re not arguing about.”
Among the disputed bills:
• The county says Risner billed for hours of legal work that was done before the complaint against the county in this case was filed. Risner says those hours were spent on a separate lawsuit against the county that is still going forward and plans to revise his bill to reflect that.
• Risner has asked for about $9,000 for paralegal services performed by Jim March, a computer expert who helped Risner understand the software that tabulates votes. The county’s lawyers say that March was an expert witness and that he does not have experience, training or certification as a paralegal.
“Jim March put in untold hours on this case,” Risner responds. “The request was just for when he assisted me in specific depositions. He’s the guy with expertise who was functioning as a paralegal.”
• Risner billed for hours spent working with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office regarding his allegation that the RTA election had been fixed. AG Terry Goddard eventually determined there was no proof that the election results were flipped, but Goddard did opine that the county’s software was vulnerable to hackers.
Risner says county officials were the ones who told him to take his concerns to the AG in the first place, so they shouldn’t complain now that he’s billing them for the time he spent working with Goddard’s office.
“They told me I had to take it to the attorney general,” Risner says. “So I did.”
• The county complains that Risner billed for time spent talking to the media. In this instance, the county’s legal motion is downright snarky: “A number of entries reflect time spent by counsel in writing to or speaking with a representative of the press. Such activities do not constitute legal work, and, in fact, given the general prohibitions on pre-trial publicity, should not have occurred in any event.”
Risner says he only charged for a few of the press contacts, primarily when they came while he was working on other elements of the case.
“Some of these requests are quite legitimate because of the public importance of these issues. The press often gets stuff wrong in articles and they need questions answered; they need stuff clarified. And they’re calling because it’s something that’s important to the public,” says Risner, who assured us that he would not be billing the county for our interview.
In a court filing, Risner argues that he probably didn’t charge for more than 30 percent of the time he’s spent on the case. He writes: “The added nature of the importance of this issue to the democratic rights of the public has been an additional factor in the case’s preparation.”