in Houston, Texas

Big-gun lawyers handle Texas Windstorm Insurance Association's transparency questions; two firms raked in $545K in the past year

Thursday, Nov 17, 2011, 07:13AM CST
By Steve Miller
money

The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association has shelled out more than half-a-million dollars to two law firms in the past year to handle a swarm of public records requests and its own questions on holding open meetings, records show.

Racking up $545,500 in legal fees, lawyers researched decades-old open meetings legal decisions and fashioned arguments to withhold information, according to billing records and checks released by the association. One lawyer/lobbyist, responsible for monitoring a massive TWIA reform bill moving through the Legislature, charged $2,700 for a single day’s work in June.


TWIA used the services of Vinson & Elkins attorney Susan Banowsky, who bills TWIA at $545-an-hour and offers expertise in navigating open records requests, paying her firm more than $415,000 from November 2010 through October.


The agency also paid a $400-an-hour Austin lobbyist and lawyer, Burnie Burner of Mitchell Williams, to research open meetings law and meet with lawmakers on TWIA’s behalf as they pondered new laws to rein in the troubled agency. Burner’s firm billed the agency $130,500 from the time of his hiring in April through July.


"There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight,” state Rep. Larry Taylor, a frequent critic of the agency, said in a statement regarding the legal bills. “I don’t know how we can be prepared for the next natural disaster if we can’t fix this financial one. I intend to get to the bottom of why TWIA policyholders are bearing this significant burden.”


Taylor, R-Friendswood, was one of several lawmakers who led the TWIA reform movement last session. The law they passed was aimed at keeping cases out of court and avoiding bills like the $39 million in fees TWIA said it spent defending itself in Hurricane Ike cases. The fees included $5.2 million on the cases that were eventually settled in an $189 million mass settlement.


TWIA was taken over by the state in February after it was deemed "hazardous to the public.” It remains the target of an investigation by the Travis County District Attorney's office.


Texas Watchdog sought the agency’s comment on the legal fees. TWIA General Manager John Polak, Board Chairman Mike Gerik and Banowsky did not return calls.

Susan BanowskySusan Banowsky

Banowsky’s billable duties include responding to information requests from the public. She is responsible for determining which records may be public, contesting the release of others through letters to the AG’s office, and discussing issues regarding open records with TWIA officials. Her tasks at one point also included reviewing an article written by Texas Watchdog.


See all of Banowsky’s bills here.


Banowsky’s $545-per-hour rate is more than twice the going rate of $244 per hour for lawyers who like her have 18 years of experience, according to a report by the State Bar of Texas for 2009. Banowsky was formerly with the open records legal team at the state Attorney General’s office.


Included in Banowsky’s bills to TWIA was almost $5,000 in copying, courier and other charges. Her office routinely paid $40 to Pro Courier to deliver papers to the AG’s office five miles away and $27 to ferry mail to TWIA headquarters, six miles away. In March, it paid $71.81 to courier a document to the Travis County District Clerk, less than a three-mile walk away, or five miles by car. It also charged $10 to copy a single data CD.


For Burner, the work entailed conferences with representatives from legislative offices, including that of state Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, who authored the reform bill, House Bill 3.

Burnie BurnerBurnie Burner

See all of Burner’s invoices here.


When Burner began working for TWIA in April, the agency was being pressured to be more open and had at times shown a creative disregard for sunshine laws: using code language in a public meeting to obscure the substance of the discussion, initially refusing to provide the call-in number to a board meeting conducted by teleconference, and slow-walking on release of records showing the agency’s finalists for general manager.


Burner dealt with the particulars of the open meetings law and other transparency issues.


On April 17, Burner reviewed a 1983 state Attorney General's opinion on attorney-client privilege with regard to open meetings stating that “a governmental body may meet with its attorney in executive session only with respect to pending or contemplated litigation or settlement offers, or to seek or receive the attorney's advice with regard to legal matters.”


He also looked at an opinion from 2000 that prohibited a public body from discussing the nonlegal specifics of a contract in closed session.


Burner was also paid that day to look at the 2003 Weatherford v. City of San Marcos case, which examined whether city officials had followed the law when they went into closed session, they said, to seek their attorney's advice on potential litigation.


On June 15, when Burner billed for 6.8 hours a charge of $2,720, the work included “monitoring” House Bill 3 and e-mailing with Polak, TWIA in-house counsel David Weber, TWIA public relations person Meg Meo, Elizabeth Fuller, financial counsel from the Texas Department of Insurance, and lower-rung lawyers who also do work for TWIA.

 

***

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.


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Photo of money by flickr user Images_of_Money, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Comments
Rudy Gonzales
Thursday, 11/17/2011 - 11:41AM

The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association(TWIA) is back in the news after the state legislature discovered numerous violations with some roofing inspectors on the take while limiting and/or minimizing liability. At the center of this "storm" aftermath is Larry Taylor of Friendswood, who has constantly run interference for those in charge of the pseudo-state insurance agency set up when the major insurance carriers decided to not write insurance in Texas. The Conservative Legislature of Texas took it upon itself to set up an agency to cover the coastal states of Texas. Post "IKE", numerous insureds had to take legal action to gain coverage for the damages inflicted on their properties, which were deemed minimal. As one of those who yelled and screamed enough to multiple layers of state bureaucratic hoops, I personally gained enough traction to get my roof fixed. Here is a re-posting: This is a money grab for the elite few of Texas. This is what you get in a one party state! The limitation what lawyers can collect when suing over mishandled and inadequate claim settlements is not tort reform, it's pulling teeth out of any real reason legislation. The only losers will be the policy holders. Capital requirements should be one hundred percent (100%) and totally secured with the paychecks of each and every Senator and representative in Austin! There will be no reason to get insurers to fix or replace homes, roofs and other structures if a Texas state sanctioned Insurance inspector decides to fudge the cost of repairs back to pre-destruction condition. An example is when I had to fight and send letters and four estimates to get a new roof on my house. A roof cannot be repaired after a hurricane like "Ike"! Any attempt to repair a roof will void the pre-existing warranty on the current roof. Insurers have the option of not insuring if the home does meet code. The only way to fix many roofs is to re-roof the entire house. It cannot be piece mealed to pre-storm condition. The fact is there were and still are corrupt state inspectors around who will low-ball an estimate to keep funds from being spent. Every cent sent in to this pseudo-state insurance association must be kept in a federally over-sighted corporation and out of the hands of any Texas Legislator! This brings to mind "Corruption", "Under-the-table" and "kickback" as was alleged post IKE! Every legislator in Austin is subject to corrupt charges resulting for failure to install safe guards protecting the public's funds. Additionally inhibitory restrictions on legal ramifications should not be considered since that would limit the correction of gross errors on behalf of TWIA, administrators or Repair contractors. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, Texas had the audacity to say no heads should roll over TWIA and the corruption and collusion in TWIA. He was wrong! He happens to be one of the representatives from Galveston County. If he was derelict in containing the misdeeds of TWIA and or the administrators or the Inspectors, or in-placing controls to keep from paying out bribes, then he also is culpable. This pseudo-state insurance association was created for the protection of the citizens of the Texas coast, and not for the lining of Texas legislators in Austin. The Legislature has been derelict in passing the budget, school funding and jobs.

Dr. Harry J. Maue
Tuesday, 12/13/2011 - 04:02PM

In an effort to control their legal fees and expenses TWIA did what most quasi government entities do retain the services of the low bidder. In the case of hiring a legal auditing company that appears to be a mere web site one only wonders did they do thier due diligence. It only takes a thorough check of public records to find out what kind of vendor you a dealing with and call all the clients listed on thier web site. All this can be done be the use of your computer such as look at Goggle maps regding the vendors address at 255 Kings Highway East, Haddonfield ,NJ and look at all the other tenants in this little row house. Does not look like an international company to me and it makes one wonder when are all the employees are housed. A simple question and signed statement that you are a full time staff member and just because you get a W2 and not a 1099 does not make you as full time employee. It's hard to compete wih this kind of company when litigimate companies witha full time salaried professional staff. After founding the legal auditing industry 26 years ago I found that the only way you can assure your clients that your audit findings are consistent is well a very experienced staff of lawyers and forensic accountants. This in no way should be taken as a sour grapes rant because my company did not earn this business. But I do get very passionate about losing to the current vendor who I do not consider to be remotely in the same league as my company. It just is very frustrating that with a little due diligence regarding the current vendor it could shed valuable light and insight into making an informed intelligent decision. We wish TWIA the very best in trying to control their legal fees and expenses and we hope they do not get turned off with the legal auditing profession should this not produce positive results. Should you want a copy of any and all public records concerning this new vendors and suggested references that you should contact please contact my office at: STUART/MAUE,LTD. 3840 McKelvey Road, Saint Loius, Missouri 63044 1-800-201-9940

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