November 19, 2007 | last updated May 26, 2012 2:41 am
TRASH TALK

Judge Silences CRRA Over Lawyer Payday | Does contingency attorney deserve $9 million fee

A Superior Court judge has forbidden the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority from talking to the towns it serves about a $36 million lawsuit award that could result in higher tipping fees for the 70 towns involved.

The gag order, issued last week, was at the request of the towns' own attorney.

Superior Court Judge Dennis G. Eveleigh's order prohibits CRRA, a quasi-public agency that manages the municipal solid waste and recycling for the State of Connecticut, from talking to its municipal clients about how they will receive their cut of a $36 million lawsuit award — and how big a cut the towns' lawyer will get — when all is said and done.

That decision will be up to Eveleigh.

The $36 million award stems from a 2001 class action lawsuit the municipalities pursued to recover money from an unsuccessful $220 million deal CRRA had made with then-powerhouse, now-bankrupt Enron Corp., using the towns' money in the process.

In June, the Superior Court ruled that CRRA must repay its municipal clients the $36 million award directly.

That ruling might have looked like the finish line, but the saga got a new twist with Eveleigh's gag order last week.

Lawyer's Fees

The judge's gag order specifically prohibits CRRA from pointing out how the municipalities' lawyer will make a hefty 25 percent fee from that $36 million award if the money is delivered straight to the towns. The CRRA argued during a Nov. 13 Waterbury Superior Court hearing that the gag order would hinder its ability to discuss with its clients how the direct repayment of the $36 million award would affect the tipping fees it charges them.

For months before the class-action ruling, CRRA and the public officials in those towns were under another gag order, forbidden from talking with the other side or the press about the case. The towns' attorney, David S. Golub, originally requested the order. With the June ruling, CRRA considered the gag order lifted, and began writing letters and e-mails to the towns involved to get its message out.

In last week's hearing, Golub said he'd finally had enough of CRRA's "desperate" attempts to influence the towns' opinions and especially CRRA's vocal talk about Golub's own attorney fees.

CRRA argued that because the decision is in the judge's hands, there's no point to restricting free speech between parties or to the press.

The judge disagreed, issuing a brief ruling that restricted CRRA from talking to the towns about the distribution of funds or Golub's fees, calling such communications "inflammatory and misleading."

The judge made no specific comment on whether the towns couldn't publicly talk about the case.

The judge's ruling didn't sit well with Lewis Andrews, the executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a Connecticut-based advocacy group.

"A gag order makes it hard for people to make up their minds," he said. "The controversy boils down to a question of: Who do you trust?" Both may have excellent cases, but a gag order puts everyone else in the dark, he said.

CRRA's argument, put simply, is this: Its revenues come almost entirely from a tipping fee it charges towns. If CRRA pays out that $36 million directly to towns, it will have no choice but to raise tipping fees. As CRRA president Thomas D. Kirk said before the gag order was issued, towns will receive a letter saying, "Congratulations, you've won money in a lawsuit," followed shortly thereafter by another from CRRA saying, "We're sorry, but your fees have been raised."

Right now tipping fees are at $69 per hauler, but may go up to about $80. That increase multiplies quickly into millions of extra dollars to make up for CRRA paying the towns $36 million directly instead of using it to defray municipal tipping fees, Kirk said.

"It drives me nuts," Kirk said of the situation.

Golub takes issue with all of this. As the towns' lawyer, he argues that CRRA is out of line in its efforts to influence the towns' opinions, especially because those statements imply that his actions aren't in the town's best interest.

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