Former AG gets $250K in UH legal work, gives school free services

Former AG gets $250K in UH legal work, gives school free services

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The University of Hawaii has paid former Attorney General Mark Bennett $254,000 since Jan. 2011 for legal work, often for high-profile cases.

Bennett was AG for eight years during the administration of former Gov. Linda Lingle.

UH hired his firm, Starn, O'Toole, Marcus and Fisher, July 10 to help with the criminal investigation into the failed Stevie Wonder concert.

"He was originally contacted for his experience and expertise with the FBI," UH President M.R.C. Greenwood told state senators at a briefing Sept. 24.

Bennett told Hawaii News Now he sat in on FBI interviews with four UH employees in the case.

So far, Bennett has billed UH about $30,000 on a contract that's capped at $75,000.

As part of that contract, he also negotiated on behalf of UH with former athletics director Jim Donovan, who threatened to sue the school after he was placed on leave after the botched concert.

Donovan OK'd a settlement in which he agreed not to sue UH in exchange for leaving his AD post and remaining at his current level of pay, $240,000, through March of next year, when his contract expired. As part of the deal, Donovan will then be paid $211,000 annually for three years in a communications post in the UH Manoa chancellor's office, and UH will pay $30,000 in his lawyer's fees.

Donovan's lawyer originally asked for UH to buyout his AD contract, pay him $240,000 as a vice chancellor at UH Manoa for five years and cover $40,000 in his legal fees.

Since January of 2011, Bennett has represented UH in ten legal cases, many of which made news headlines.  The legal contracts are worth about $450,000, but Bennett said he has billed the UH for just $254,000 of that amount. Bennett told Hawaii News Now he extends UH a 25-percent discount of his normal hourly rate "because of the public service aspects of representing the university."

In 2011, Bennett represented UH in what's considered the largest-ever class action lawsuit in the state filed against the university on behalf of more than 90,000 former and current students, faculty and employees who were potential victims of several UH data breaches of their personal information.

Bennett said UH paid him more than $145,000 for his work on the suit which was settled in late January. UH agreed to offer two years of credit monitoring and fraud restoration services to those affected.

Bennett said he has also billed UH $42,194 for legal work involving conference realignment and contract issues in the school's transition into the Mountain West athletic conference in late 2011.

In February, Bennett was paid $3,409 to send the operator of a pornographic web site a "cease and desist" letter, because it was using the UH's name on an X-rated web site. Within a few days, the web site was pulled down from the Internet.

But he also charged UH nothing for a case that he said likely saved UH roughly $15 to $18 million.

"In the pro bono matter, I negotiated a written agreement with Citigroup in 2011 pursuant to which Citi bought back from the university, at the price the university paid plus accrued interest, the university's entire $75 million distressed auction rate securities portfolio," Bennett said in a statement. "As a result of the agreement I negotiated with Citi, the university and taxpayers suffered no loss related to the purchase."  He said that was similar to a deal he worked out for the state that he worked out when he was AG.

"I've done good work," Bennett said. "Throughout my 33-year legal career, I have been involved in complex litigation and negotiations. I believe my firm was selected by the University of Hawaii because of my experience, qualifications, reputation and proven excellent results.

State senators have been critical of the cost of outside counsel, or private lawyers, hired by the UH, whose services cost the school $6 million between Sept. 1, 2006 to April 1, 2011.

In written answers to questions posed by state senators as part of the Stevie Wonder concert probe, the UH said, "The eight staff attorneys in the [UH] Office of General Counsel are a streamlined, concentrated core providing legal services to the university system statewide."  Two of those eight positions are vacant, UH officials said.

"It would be impossible for such a small staff to manage the volume of complaints, cases, actions, and matters that come in every years, particularly when many frequently require attorneys with specialized skills in a particular area," UH wrote, in its justification for hiring private lawyers to supplement its staff attorneys.

copyright 2012 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.