WEST CHESTER — Chester County Controller Margaret Reif has confirmed multiple instances of over-billing by an attorney handling the county’s intervention in a lawsuit with the state Public Utilities Commission concerning the Mariner East Pipeline projects and uncovered additional instances of costs the county should not have been charged for.
Reif said in an interview Saturday that full amount of the apparently inflated legal charges was $15,785.70, more than $2,000 beyond what an initial reading showed was incorrectly paid in documents obtained by a local pipeline safety activist, who pushed to receive the bills after she grew curious about the amount being paid to the law firm the county hired in 2019 to represent it in the PUC action.
“We went through it line-by-line,” Reif said, referring to a five-page invoice claiming $67,872 in fees and costs submitted by attorney Margaret A. “Margie” Morris of the Reger Rizzo & Darnall law firm in Philadelphia. “We had some questions. People were saying, ‘This doesn’t look right.’”
Her examination of the invoice confirmed that Morris had inaccurately claimed more than 24 hours for tasks she had completed for the county in August and September 2019 that were later adjusted to show only eight hours, and that she had mischarged the county $425 an hour on 26 occasions even though she was contracted to charge only $400 an hour.
Those inaccuracies cost the county $12,777 in fees it should not have paid.
But the controller’s findings also showed that Morris and the Reger firm charged the county $1,136.40 for two transcripts of PUC hearings, documents whose cost should have shared equally with East Goshen, another intervenor that is represented by the Reger law firm in the PUC action.
And Reif was able to successfully challenge a charge of $1,360 for a three- hour meeting with someone, identified as "K.A.," on Oct. 21, 2019, that was likely a meeting that had also been charged to East Goshen.
“It may not be the end,” Reif said in a telephone call Saturday. “There may be more.” She pointed specifically to a meeting that Morris charged $2,762 for that specified 6½ hours of work that some say should have been less than two hours.
The over-billings and inaccurate charges came because of the persistence of Laura Obenski of Uwchlan, a self-described pipeline safety activist who is a pro-se intervenor in the PUC actions. That action seeks to shut down the Mariner East construction work until Sunoco Pipelines, which is building the project through Chester and Delaware counties, comes up with an emergency plan for potential disasters along its length. She filed open records requests that uncovered the existence of a “hidden” invoice that showed the over-billing, she contends.
“Had it not been for her (Obenski), I would not have known about it,” Reif said of the “hidden” bill, acknowledging that the county Controller’s Office had in December approved payment of two invoices from Reger for more than $75,000 that contained the inaccuracies after they had been signed off on by the county Solicitor’s Office, to whom they had been submitted in December.
“We never would have known what was going on. I appreciate her diligence,” Reif said on Obenski.
Reif also indicated that she understood that Morris had been removed from representing the county in the PUC action, and that the Reger firm had also agreed to credit the county the $15,785 that Morris inaccurately claimed rather than to reimburse the county that amount.
It could not be determined what invoice the firm would apply that to; the county has not said whether any other invoices have come from the firm, which is supposed to bill the county monthly. It also remained unclear whether the Reger firm would continue to act as the county’s outside counsel in the PUC matter. A question about the firm's status was left unanswered by the county on Thursday.
A second hearing before the PUC is scheduled for September. Observers suggest it might be better to have a firm that had worked on the issues previously rather than hire a new firm to take over at this late date.
Obenski’s findings in the invoices were first reported Tuesday on the social media Facebook page of Indivisible Chester County, the local chapter of the national movement that seeks to elect progressive officials at the local, state, and national level.
Morris, contacted by phone Thursday, declined to comment on the over-billing allegations, but did admit that the invoices her firm submitted had contained inaccuracies that she was still in the process of correcting.
“I don’t have a comment,” she said. “I am working on getting the invoice to the county now. There was an error that was made, but I have no further comment.” She could not be reached for comment Saturday on Reif’s findings, or on her status in the PUC case.
Asked about the controversy last week, the county issued the following statement on Thursday:
“The invoice submitted by the law firm of Reger Rizzo & Darnall, LLP in December 2019, for its representation of Chester County as an intervenor in the matter of Flynn, et. al. v. Sunoco Pipeline, LP, contained inaccuracies which, through human error, were missed prior to payment. The billing errors have since been corrected, with a credit issued by the law firm to the county.
“The county is reviewing its system of checks and balances regarding the review, approval and payment of invoices to ensure any inaccurate invoices received by the county are identified and corrected prior to payment.”
The statement did not specify whose error the payments were: the law firm, or the county.
Reif, the county’s elected financial watchdog, said she began questioning the law firm’s invoices in February when approached by Obenski about invoices she had received after filing a request for them as public records. When her request was granted, she was told by county Deputy Solicitor Kristen Mayock that a copy of the invoices required correction because of an unspecified “typo,” meaning typographical error.
Obsenki’s request to see the original, uncorrected bill, however, was rejected. The county later asserted that there was only one invoice, and that it had been provided to Obenski in February.
But essentially, a reading of the record is that Obenski was first provided with an invoice that listed Morris's hours as 87.1, when in fact the lawyer had already been paid for 111.1 hours of work. Those inaccuracies were not addressed by the county until last week, when it stated that the billing error had "been corrected.”
Reif said she conferred with Mayock and county Administrator Bobby Kagel in late February or early March about Obenski’s concerns about the invoice, which showed Morris charging $425 for 87.1 hours -- not the 111.1 hours actually paid -- instead of the $400 she was supposed to be paid. “I was told it would be fixed,” she said. She was not informed of the discrepancies in hours Morris claimed to have worked.
But in subsequent weeks, when Reif said she questioned her colleagues as to when a refund would be paid for the inflated hourly costs, she said she was "assured this was going to be handled.” When asked whether the bills were ever corrected before Obenski went public with her questions, Reif said flatly, “No.”
Reif said she had been asking solely about the hourly overpayment. But when Obenski’s challenge to get a copy of the original, “uncorrected” invoices was upheld by the state Office of Open Records and the activist made the original invoice public, the controller learned the extent of the over-billing.
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 invoices 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, Reif said. The difference in costs was $11,050.
Even though the Solicitor’s Office had the two versions of the Dec. 16, 2019 invoice, Reif said it was never addressed in her conversations with Mayock about the bills. “They never said a word to me. They never did anything.”
Reif said she was able to analyze the bills when Obsenki published the two invoices on the internet. She not only confirmed Obenski’s charges, but found the other errors.
The controller agreed that her office should have noticed the $425 an hour overcharges, as well as questioned the high hourly charges for the August and September dates.
“That is never supposed to happen, and it usually doesn’t,” she said. “But because the invoices came from the Solicitor’s Office, my team didn’t challenge that. I am fixing that.”
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.