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Bundy attorney will not defend Las Vegas in Badlands cases

Updated May 8, 2020 - 4:02 pm

The Las Vegas City Council scrapped a proposed $21,000-per-month contract this week with a law firm that represented Ammon Bundy during his standoff trial and had been under consideration to defend the city in litigation related to the defunct Badlands golf course.

Under the proposed retainer agreement, the Las Vegas-based Hill Firm would have taken over for about a half dozen private firms employed to fight several cases that stem from a company’s claim that the city illegally blocked its plans to develop on the shuttered course.

But instead the council on Wednesday struck the agreement from the agenda, acting on the advice of the city attorney’s office, and then directed the city’s legal counsel to work to reduce fees with existing private attorneys.

Attorney Dan Hill said Friday he requested the council pull the agreement when he learned it “had become political,” making note of a “divided council,” which he understood to be linked to his representation of Bundy.

“If the city can find someone who wins trials as big as I have, and who can do it cheaper, they should hire them,” Hill said in a statement. “The city throws millions at the current lawyers and I was doing my part to save taxpayer money. I’m familiar with the facts, and I would have won these trials.”

City Attorney Brad Jerbic declined to comment about the proposed deal, which was presumably being mulled to save money by rolling legal representation under one umbrella.

Lacking consensus

Hill said Jerbic reached out to him, inquiring whether he was interested in taking on the cases.

“It probably wasn’t a unanimous consensus (among the council), I would think,” Councilman Cedric Crear said.

Crear expressed concern about a shift in legal representation if the city was pleased with its present roster of private attorneys. But he said he was not bothered by Hill’s ties to Bundy.

“I’m not here to judge the Bundys or what have you,” he said. “I have my own personal opinions.”

Hill represented Bundy, who was acquitted of wrongdoing after a one-day armed standoff near Bunkerville in 2014, when he protested the federal government’s roundup on public land of about 1,000 cows belonging to his father, Cliven. The confrontation came amid a dispute with the government about “grazing fees.” Cliven Bundy and another son were also acquitted in connection to the incident.

Hill also won a high-profile acquittal only three months ago, representing Vagos Motorcycle Club leader Pastor “Tata” Palafox, who was embroiled in a murder and racketeering trial.

“I will always represent anyone constitutionally entitled to a defense, and I wish more people would appreciate that, irrespective of political affiliation,” Hill said by phone.

‘Puzzling to me’

Councilwoman Michele Fiore, who sided with protesters during the Bunkerville feud and a much longer impasse led by the Bundys in eastern Oregon two years later, did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday.

But Councilwoman Victoria Seaman, who has routinely expressed discontent over escalating Badlands legal fees, supported Hill’s hiring and believed it would have saved the city more than $1.5 million.

“If other council members were against this, it’s puzzling to me that they don’t understand the kind of crisis that we’re in and the millions of dollars this has cost us,” she said.

The day before the council meeting, Councilman Stavros Anthony entered a city briefing ready to ask several questions after he said he received calls and emails from people not on board with retaining Hill.

“I didn’t know who he was, never heard of him,” Anthony said. “I just heard it was a split vote, it was controversial.”

Anthony never got the opportunity to ask those questions, he said, because Hill requested the deal be withdrawn.

For Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, the proposed agreement lacked a transition plan: “It makes me a little nervous to just switch without knowing that we planned adequately for it.”

Diaz said she understood that legal fees have been a burden on resources and that it is important to cut costs, including by exploring more in-house attorney work on the cases. But she said she was ultimately not comfortable without a bidding process and with having received the details of Hill’s consideration at the last minute.

Councilman Brian Knudsen declined to comment, citing the pending litigation, and Mayor Carolyn Goodman did not immediately return a message.

Ex-lawmakers weigh in

The proposal to supplant attorneys on the highly publicized litigation, which has now seen taxpayer costs rise to nearly $2.4 million, had also drawn strong reaction from two people no longer in City Hall: Former council members Bob Coffin and Steve Seroka.

The ex-lawmakers, who are named in two ongoing federal lawsuits related to Badlands, questioned the Hill Firm’s experience in federal civil rights cases, its reputation for defending those with “anti-government” views and the lack of a bidding process.

“This sole-source, no bid, noncompetitive selection process is arbitrary and an inappropriate method to achieve the city’s goal of reducing its financial burden,” the former councilmen wrote in a signed letter to the city.

The two men also expressed doubt that Hill would be motivated to resolve the cases quickly, “let alone win them,” since the deal called for the city to make monthly payments to Hill until all litigation ended. The agreement did provide the city with an exit at any time without cause, according to an April 20 retainer letter that Hill addressed to Jerbic.

‘Right decision’

Coffin and Seroka had been accused in court by developer EHB Cos. of bias over their opposition to a proposed residential development on the closed golf course, and a laborers’ union filed a separate suit against the ex-lawmakers over lost jobs.

The lawsuit regarding bias was decided in favor of the ex-lawmakers, although it is being appealed, and the union suit continues to wind its way through court.

Coffin and Seroka told the city that a loss in either case would set a precedent for elected officials to fear reprisal with every vote, underscoring why it was important to keep the private attorney already representing them, who they said was more experienced in these type of cases.

“The council made the right decision,” Coffin said, adding that he understood the city’s financial pressure. “I’m grateful that they did not make this rash move.”

But the stricken agreement Wednesday does not necessarily mean that Hill would not consider assuming the city’s Badlands defense in the future.

“If asked, I would take another look at it,” he said.

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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