Conservative law firm earned $730K as Ottawa County’s new attorney, invoices show

OTTAWA COUNTY, MI – A law firm best known for championing conservative causes made nearly $750,000 last year working as the new attorney for Ottawa County.

Invoices obtained by MLive/The Grand Rapids Press through a Freedom of Information Act request show Kallman Legal Group billed the county and its insurance authority for almost 3,006 hours of work in 2023, resulting in a total charge of $731,755.37.

The bulk of those earnings – $503,392 – was billed directly to the county for 2,237.3 hours of corporation counsel work, which includes attending county board meetings, providing legal opinions to county officials and departments, holding office hours, processing and responding to FOIA requests, ensuring county compliance with state law and more.

Kallman Legal Group charged $225 an hour for corporation counsel work in 2023, and that rate increased to $240 an hour this year.

Kallman Legal Group’s bill last year for corporation counsel work was more than double the $240,415 the county paid in contracted corporation counsel services in budget year 2022, the last full year that Doug Van Essen, Kallman Legal Group’s predecessor, was contracted in the position.

Van Essen was charging $240 an hour for corporation counsel work in 2022 but had a cap placed on his maximum annual billings. Current county officials did not know what that 2022 cap was when asked by MLive/The Grand Rapids Press.

When Kallman Legal Group was hired on, the county’s fiscal services department had estimated an annual bill around $280,800 for corporation counsel work.

The county board had to allocate $110,000 more for Kallman Legal Group’s expenses in July 2023, and Ottawa County Board Chair Joe Moss at the time blamed the growing legal costs on the rising number of Freedom of Information Act requests being processed by Kallman Legal Group as well as the need for legal representation in lawsuits levied against the board.

RELATED: Ottawa County exceeds budget, allocates $110K more to cover costs of conservative law firm

Jack Jordan, an attorney with Kallman Legal Group, said in December that Freedom of Information Act requests increased dramatically in 2023. The county’s corporate counsel handled about 30 requests in 2022. That number increased 1,066% in 2023, to more than 350 requests.

The invoices do not specify how many hours each month were devoted solely to processing FOIA requests.

Moss did not return a request for comment. David Kallman, who owns Kallman Legal Group, also did not return calls for comment.

Kallman Legal Group was hired in January 2023 to replace Van Essen as part of a larger, surprise shakeup by the new ultraconservative county board majority called Ottawa Impact.

RELATED: See the 6 surprise resolutions passed by Ottawa County’s new board

The law firm isn’t known for, and doesn’t list experience in, municipal law necessary for corporation counsel work on its website.

That was a concern raised by several county board members when Kallman Legal Group was hired, and the law firm has come under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks after fired county Administrator John Gibbs alleged the firm gave inaccurate legal opinions and took longer on routine legal work because it lacked experience, among other claims.

Kallman Legal Group is best known for taking on cases challenging the state’s shutdown orders during the COVID-19 pandemic and defending businesses that deny LGBTQ people service based on religious beliefs.

Kallman Legal Group shares a similar political ideology to Ottawa Impact board members, which campaigned on frustrations over mask mandates and pandemic restrictions and last year passed a resolution to “protect childhood innocence” after county health workers provided services at two LGBTQ festivals.

RELATED: Attorney: John Gibbs’ suspension is ‘retaliation’ for efforts to ‘protect’ Ottawa County

The firm also has ties to Moss, whose business partner, Joel Kallman, is related to the two principal attorneys at Kallman Legal Group. Moss leads Ottawa Impact and previously said there is no conflict of interest.

The remaining $228,363.37 earned by Kallman Legal Group in 2023 was billed to the Ottawa County Insurance Authority for 768.6 hours of litigation work.

While the contract with Kallman Legal Group approved by the county board in January outlines that attorneys will be paid $275 an hour for litigation work, Kallman Legal Group charged $295 an hour for that work throughout all of last year. It wasn’t immediately clear why Kallman Legal Group charged more for those services than the contracted rate.

The Ottawa County Insurance Authority was seeded in the 1990s with county general fund dollars from taxpayers, but the county hasn’t allocated more funds to it in years and instead has relied on investment growth to fund the nearly $20 to $25 million reserve, according to county commissioner Doug Zylstra, the sole Democrat on the board.

The biggest litigation cost last year was the county’s fight against Administrative Health Officer Adeline Hambley’s wrongful termination lawsuit, which was brought after Ottawa Impact county commissioners voted to replace her without cause.

Hambley and the county board recently reached a tentative agreement allowing her to keep her job if she drops her lawsuit.

RELATED: 5 things to know about Ottawa County’s health officer keeping her job after 14-month fight

Kallman Legal Group billed a total of $172,371.17 for its work in 2023 on the Hambley lawsuit. An additional $60,209.50 worth of work by Kallman attorneys was not billed.

The invoices show Kallman Legal Group claims its attorneys worked an additional 1,491.6 last year, resulting in $352,510.50 worth of expenses for both corporation counsel and litigation work, that the law firm decided it will not bill the county for.

The invoices do not detail what work those unbilled hours were spent on. Instead, each month Kallman Legal Group provided a tally of a number of hours worked by its attorneys, and the associated cost, that it didn’t bill the county for.

The invoices do not detail why Kallman Legal Group decided not to bill for those hours.

Zylstra has previously advocated for a cap on the amount Kallman Legal Group can charge the county, much like Van Essen had when he was contracted as corporation counsel.

When Van Essen was contracted as corporation counsel in 2017, county commissioners implemented a $170,000 cap that, if exceeded, all work beyond that isn’t billed.

County officials told MLive/The Grand Rapids Press that Van Essen’s annual cap was likely raised in subsequent years as his hourly rate increased, per the contract.

Zylstra said he wasn’t surprised by the total billed by Kallman Legal Group last year, saying that Van Essen was giving the county a good deal and that now corporation counsel work is being charged closer to market rate.

“We know that we’re not getting back to the days of Doug Van Essen when we were getting charged what, $250,000 a year?” But also, let’s not go from $250,000 to $500,000,” Zylstra said. “But it’s not a surprise based on some of the dynamics at play. Will we ever get to a place where we have one lawyer and we can count on what the billings are? I hope so.

“Right now we have two lawyers plus two more litigation lawyers, who I think probably do some corporate counsel work too.”

According to the invoices, the primary Kallman Legal Group attorneys doing corporate counsel work are Jack Jordan and Lanae Monera. Attorneys Dave and Stephen Kallman also occasionally work and bill hours as corporate counsel.

While a few county commissioners like Zylstra have advocated for reigning in costs, Ottawa County board leadership has not entertained those discussions.

Kallman Legal Group’s experience in municipal law was something several county commissioners raised questions about in January 2023 just before the Ottawa Impact-led board approved replacing Van Essen with the firm.

At the time, Jordan responded to those concerns saying the firm does have experience in the area, and he pointed to his time working as chief deputy city attorney at the city of Lansing two decades ago.

Zylstra said that lack of experience in municipal law may have resulted in increased billing hours.

“Everybody can learn, but learning is not free, and education takes time and that’s going to cost Ottawa County residents for our new lawyers to get up to speed,” Zylstra said. “Again, no knock on Lanae or Jack, but it is what it is: if you don’t have the experience, you need to gain the experience and it’s going to take some time to get that, and that’s going to cost a little bit in billings.”

Kallman Legal Group’s adequacy as corporate counsel has come under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks after the firing in late February of Gibbs, who Ottawa Impact county commissioners installed as part of the same house cleaning that saw Kallman Legal Group hired.

Gibbs claims Ottawa Impact board leadership soured on him after he began criticizing the ability of Kallman Legal Group to perform its duties.

But an attorney hired by the board outlined claims against Gibbs, alleging he created a hostile work environment, made sexist comments and physically threatened one of Kallman Legal Group’s attorneys.

RELATED: John Gibbs accused of physical threats, sexist comments, installing secret camera

In a July 2023 memo to Moss and Board Vice Chair Sylvia Rhodea recently released by Gibbs’ attorneys, Gibbs enumerated a number of problems with Kallman Legal Group’s performance, claiming they have given incorrect advice, lack organization and have provided delayed responses to routine requests.

Gibbs proposed to Moss and Rhodea that Kallman Legal Group only handle litigation services and no longer be used for or paid for corporation counsel work.

Gibbs claimed that Kallman Legal Group’s lack of experience in municipal law has caused routine requests to take more time.

“Counsel lacks experience in municipal law and in the practice of providing legal counsel to government policymakers,” Gibbs wrote in the July 2023 memo. “This results in standard requests for analysis taking much longer than expected, since counsel must start from scratch when gathering information. It also results in erroneous legal opinions.”

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