Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi has hired his former legal partner and personal attorney to field public records requests.
Under the deal, signed in June, locally based Collignon & Dietrick PC is responsible for the review and production of Prosecutor’s Office e-mails, contracts, case files and other documents requested by members of the media or public.
The firm was known as Brizzi Collignon & Dietrick before Brizzi sold his stake and left to run for prosecutor in 2002. Principal Thomas D. Collignon, who is leading the Prosecutor’s Office account, also represents Brizzi personally on matters he declined to discuss.
“Obviously, I don’t think I have any conflicts,” Collignon said. “Public records requests need to be handled, and [attorneys in the Prosecutor’s Office] have another important job to do.”
A contract calls for the firm to bill the Prosecutor’s Office between $95 and $225 per hour, depending on who handles the work. Collignon, who bills at $225, will have primary responsibility. Collignon & Dietrick was not paid a retainer and has not yet sent its first invoice.
The contract, which does not cap the payments, is a new expense for the Prosecutor’s Office. Public records previously had been produced as part of an ongoing agreement with the city’s in-house legal division.
The Office of Corporation Counsel withdrew itself from handling Prosecutor’s Office media requests in May, citing “an unavoidable and concurrent conflict of interest” relating to another municipal agency it represents. Attorneys in the office have declined to elaborate.
Corporation Counsel Samantha S. Karn gave Brizzi permission to hire an in-house or outside counsel to help with pending and future requests, and shipped over a pile of records requests in process.
Records requests have poured in as an IBJ investigation that began late last year raised questions about Brizzi’s business dealings while in office and whether those deals influenced his actions as prosecutor.
The agreement with Collignon & Dietrick has a conflict-of-interest provision that pledges that none of the firm’s employees have a direct or indirect conflict of interest with the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office.
Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman Susan Decker, of locally based Hirons & Co., did not respond to a phone message or e-mail by press time but later offered a statement explaining the rationale for hiring Collignon.
"It was quickly determined that Collignon & Dietrick was a good choice due to their experience and knowledge of city legal and work with the Prosecutor's Office," Decker wrote.
Karn declined to comment on whether Brizzi’s choice of Collignon to handle records requests is appropriate.
“As far as their contracts go, our office approves outside contracts for them but they then choose who they use,” she said.
The deal with Collignon & Dietrick isn’t the department’s only outsourcing deal. The Prosecutor’s Office is paying Hirons $6,500 per month to field media requests until Brizzi’s term ends Dec. 31. And locally based Garrison Law Firm handles selected civil forfeiture work in exchange for keeping 20 percent to 30 percent of the take. Parceling out civil forfeiture work isn’t as rare as the other deals.
The state’s Access to Public Records statute describes the production of documents as “an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees.”
Delegating instead to a private vendor is an unusual and questionable move, said Steve Key, general counsel at the Hoosier State Press Association.
“In general, public agencies have a better feel for where their records are, what’s in them, and whether those records fall into a category that would give them discretion or mandate to keep them confidential, as opposed to sending off to a third party that would not know the inner workings of the agency,” Key said. “On top of that, we’re talking about an agency staffed with numerous attorneys who would be able to understand basics of the Access to Public Records Act.”
It is unusual for a government agency in Indiana to outsource responsibility for producing public records, but it is not prohibited by law and can be helpful when agencies are overwhelmed, said Indiana Public Access Counselor Andrew Kossack.
Hiring outsiders can “actually speed things along” in some cases, Kossack said, including in the recent Carmel hazing case, in which the Noblesville law firm Church Church Hittle & Antrim helped field requests.
“It can be advantageous if it’s an attorney with a specialty in records requests,” Kossack said.
Collignon focuses his practice on “complex litigation matters including breach of fiduciary duty, bad faith, breach of contract, real estate disputes, usurpation of corporate opportunities and shareholder disputes,” according to the firm’s website. Other areas of expertise include professional disciplinary proceedings and family-law matters.
Kossack said it’s not necessarily a conflict that Collignon also represents Brizzi individually, including on a case where the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission alleges Brizzi in 2006 gave inappropriate statements about active cases including the murder of seven people on Hamilton Avenue.
At least one reporter, Russ McQuaid of WXIN-TV Channel 59, has called off a months-old request for hundreds of e-mails sent or received by particular members of the Prosecutor’s Office staff. He sent a letter to Collignon explaining that he didn’t want taxpayers to get a big bill to produce sanitized documents.
IBJ has received responses to most of its requests, which have not been as broad.•