WEST CHESTER — The second-in-command in the Chester County Solicitor’s Office has resigned her position, leaving the office temporarily shorthanded as it prepares for an upcoming hearing before the state Public Utilities Commission involving the county’s case against the Mariner East Pipeline project.
Kristin Kirk Mayock, who served as the office’s deputy solicitor, tendered her resignation last Thursday, the county confirmed on Monday. She will leave her post later this month.
Her departure from the county government comes following the report that Mayock had played a central role in a review of questionable bills that a Philadelphia law firm submitted to the county last year, and that were subsequently paid, for its representation of the county before the PUC. One of those invoices was later determined by county officials to have included inflated billing hours, disputed costs, and incorrect hourly fees.
The Solicitor’s Office, as well as the county Controller’s Office, determined that attorney Margaret “Margie” Morris, a partner with the firm of Reger Rizzo & Darnall, had over-billed the county an estimated $15,785 for the period from March 2019 to October 2019. The excess charges included billing the county $425 an hour rather than the agreed-upon $400 an hour fee, plus inflating hours showing Morris working more than 24 hours on two dates. Morris later acknowledged that she had actually worked only eight hours on those two days.
The over-billing was discovered after inquires were made by a pipeline safety activist in Uwchlan, Laura Obenski, who filed a Right to Know request with the county to see Morris’ bills in January, and who later shared her finding of questionable fees paid to Morris on social media.
Mayock had been hired by the previous county commissioners in October 2016 to serve as the main assistant to Solicitor Thomas Whiteman, after having worked as general counsel for the Delaware River Port Authority and as an attorney with the Wayne-based law firm of Reidenbach & Associates. She had also served with Commissioner Michelle Kichline on the Tredyffrin Board of Supervisors in 2012 and 2013, elected as a Republican.
Whiteman formally retired from his long-time position as county solicitor last week, after having notified the commissioners of his intentions several months beforehand. A replacement has not been named.
In a message sent via Twitter, Mayock confirmed her resignation, but stressed that her decision had “nothing to do” with the handling of the PUC billing issue. She referred other questions to the county’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Brain, who provided a statement.
“During her time with the county, Kristen Mayock has provided valuable support to the commissioners, to the county Solicitor and to the county’s departments,” Brain said in a statement “Her professional experience and guidance have been valued, in particular with regard to the county’s response to the opioid crisis, in the development of the Venture ChesCo economic development initiative, the county’s millennial task force, and in the County’s various actions relating to pipeline issues.
Brain added that Mayock was not asked to leave her position and that there was “no intention to ask her to leave.”
The spokeswoman said that with Whiteman’s departure, the commissioners have been interviewing for his replacement and that Mayock was one of five candidates that was shortlisted to be interviewed for the position. “We will be announcing the appointment of the new county Solicitor later this month,” Brain said.
In the action before the PUC, the commissioners seeks as an intervenor to challenge safety procedures along the controversial Sunoco pipeline that runs through the heart of the county. Mayock had been the member of the county Solicitor’s Office who had worked most closely on the PUC case. The Reger Rizzo bills show no fewer than 19 instances when Mayock’s name was mentioned, either involving e-mails or meetings about the PUC case. It now, however, becomes unclear who will handle the county’s interests when the PUC convenes its next hearing on Mariner East in September.
Brain confirmed that the law firm had been removed from representing the county before the PUC, noting that its actions regarding the invoices the county received had had been a contributing factor in the commissioners’ decision.
“After repeated attempts to obtain a revised invoice, the Chester County Solicitor’s Office received a revised invoice on July 2, 2020 from Reger Rizzo & Darnall,” she said. The firm credited an overcharged amount of $15,785 to the county’s current billing statement, she said.
“County leadership has expressed its dissatisfaction directly to Ms. Morris and others within her firm,” the statement from the county read. “The billing errors, combined with the lack of responsiveness in correcting the invoice, forced the county to make the difficult decision to terminate its relationship with the firm.
The county is currently reviewing its options regarding future representation in the pipeline matter, the statement said.
Meanwhile, officials in East Goshen said in an interview Monday that they had been prompted by news reports of the billing problems with Morris to examine the bills the township had paid to Morris and Reger Rizzo to represent it in the PUC action. The case involves a suit filed against Sunoco Pipelines Inc. by a group of seven residents of Chester and Delaware counties who contend that the Mariner East does not have adequate safety plans in place to show what would be done in case of a disaster or emergency.
The pipeline had been plagued in the past by sink holes and other unforeseen situations, leaving nearby residents concerned about their safety. Construction began again earlier this year after it had been shut down by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over regulatory violations. The DEP issued a $309 million fine against Energy Transfers Inc., the Dallas-based company that is constructing the pipeline.
Township Finance Director Jon Altshul and Township Manager Louis “Rick” Smith said by telephone that they had been “drilling down” into the bill the township received for $11,671 in fees submitted by Morris in January involving the PUC hearing after reading of the county’s issues.
“We are trying to get clarification on some of the items that Ms. Morris billed us,” said Altshul, noting that he had spoken with her that morning. “It is too early that this stage to say there are no billing errors, but it is fair to say that we had a frank discussion” with Morris, who had acknowledged making errors in the county bills earlier this month.
“We are not quite ready to brief our Board of Supervisors,” Altshul said, but suggested that there would be a discussion with the board at a public meeting on July 21. He confirmed, however, that Morris had not billed the township at the higher, erroneous $425 an hour rate she charged the county on 26 occasions.
Morris could not be reached for comment. The Reger firm has not been removed as the township’s legal representation before the PUC, Altshul said.
The over-billing exposed by Obenski’s challenge came after Mayock sent her a copy of one of Morris’ bills submitted in December 2019 that the solicitor wrote had been corrected because of “a typo.” Obenski’s request to see the original bill was then denied by the county, but her appeal of that decision was upheld by the state Office of Open Records. In the uncorrected bill, Obenski learned the extent of the over-billing.
In addition to charging the county $25 more per hour than it had contracted for in February 2019, Morris appeared to have inflated the amount of time she spent on two individual tasks while representing the county. One of the invoice entries claims that she spent more than 19 hours traveling from Philadelphia to Exton to attend a meeting on Sept. 18, 2019 with fellow complainants in the PUC action. Another shows she spent 14.8 hours drafting and filing a witness list for the county on Aug. 20, 2019. Both were in preparation for an October 2019 PUC hearing held in West Chester.
In the corrected version of the invoice, those hourly charges were adjusted to 3.30 hours for the Exton meeting and 4.8 hours for the witness list draft. Both, meanwhile, had been charged at the $425 hourly rate.
Even though the full invoice had been adjusted to show the new time figures, from 111.2 hours to 87.1 hours, no refund was ever paid by the firm to the county for the apparent error that Mayock had referenced in initially granting Obenski’s request for the documents. The difference in costs was $11,050.
In her review of the invoice this month, county Controller Margaret Reif said she found that the county had been charged $1,136 for two PUC transcripts when it should have paid only half that amount, splitting the costs with East Goshen. When her office also questioned a vague reference to a meeting with “K.A.,” Morris agreed to waive that $1,360 charge.
Reif noted that she had pressed the Solicitor’s Office for some time about the problems with the Reger Rizzo bill, and had been dissatisfied with the responses she received. It was not until Obenski published her account of the bills on social media that the law firm acknowledged its mistakes and agreed to compensate the county for the over-billing.
Reif has said that the Reger firm had submitted a new bill reflecting a credit to the county for $15,785 in inflated fees charged in the Dec. 16, 2016 bill. The county owes less than $300, she said.