DENVER (CBS4) - A CBS4 investigation has learned that Denver International Airport is paying one lawyer $900 per hour to look into the stalled Great Hall project. The lawyer is paying two of his associates $850 per hour, an arrangement one Denver city council member called "excessive."
The legal bills dating back to October show the airport has been paying former Denver City Attorney Cole Finegan, now with the law firm Hogan-Lovells, $900 per hour to investigate the project. Two of his associates with the firm, Craig Umbaugh and David Loscasio, are each being paid $850 per hour for their work.
"It feels excessive," said Denver City Councilwoman Candi Cdebaca when she reviewed the invoices obtained by CBS4 through an open records request. She said this was the first time she had learned that outside lawyers were being paid nearly $1,000 per hour to look into the terminal redevelopment project.
"The fact that I got this from you bothers me the most," said CdeBaca. "This is information that should have been directly given to council."
One of the invoices shows the firm has an existing governmental affairs contract with the airport, but that stated purpose was apparently changed to allow the attorneys to investigate the problematic terminal redevelopment. Sources have told CBS4 although the money is being paid by DIA, the investigation was ordered by the mayor's office.
The Great Hall redevelopment stalled out last year after Denver fired the original developer, Great Hall partners, after months of bickering over potential cost overruns, change orders and delays. At one point, GHP estimated the project would be $310 million over the $650 million budget and at least three years behind schedule. Mayor Michael Hancock fired the developer in August.
Legal bills now show the Hogan-Lovells attorneys have been working since at least October to determine what went wrong with the project. Since they began, Denver has paid the law firm $116,808 from October 2019 through January 2020.
While Cdebaca was taken aback by the hourly fees, she said she was troubled that the legal bills showed when the attorneys talked to each other about the Great Hall project, they would repeatedly each bill an hourly rate. So when two of the attorneys conferred with each other on Oct. 11, the airport was billed $1,490 for the conversation.
"When you see multiple people in a meeting charging for the same meeting, it just doesn't feel like something I would want or expect from an outside company we are contracting with," said Cdebaca.
Numerous Denver-based attorneys contacted by CBS4 said they believed the hourly charges of $800-$900 an hour were excessive and unusual for this region. The lawyers asked their names not be used as they have done, or would like to do legal work for the City of Denver in the future.
A 2018 survey of legal rates charged across the country showed the average hourly billing in New York City for an attorney was $344 per hour, and $278 per hour in Boston. The same year, the Houston Chronicle reported many Texas lawyers were charging $1,000 per hour .
In 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported top partners at the nation's biggest and best known corporate law firms were charging nearly $1,500 per hour.
So is DIA being fleeced, or is the airport getting a reasonable deal?
One measure may be examining other work performed by one of the Hogan-Lovells attorneys involved in the DIA investigation, Craig Umbaugh. He is also the attorney for Denver's Metropolitan Football Stadium District which manages Empower Field at Mile High.
Umbaugh serves as the lawyer for the Metropolitan Baseball Stadium District which manages Coors Field.
Hogan-Lovells bills those entities $695 per hour for Umbaugh's work, 18% less than the $850 per hour the firm is billing DIA for Umbaugh's Great Hall work. Umbaugh did not respond to an email inquiry from CBS4.
Asked by CBS4 if they considered $850-to-$900 an hour to be excessive, DIA administrators responded, "Yes, but we are paying for experience."
They went on to say they knew they would be paying $900 per hour, but they chose to use Hogan-Lovells because the firm "has served as counsel to the Airport for over 20 years and has significant P3 (public-private partnership) experience, including with the City."
The airport statement said no other law firms were considered for the Great Hall investigation.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: Monthly Legal Bills Obtained By CBS4
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