LARGO - Patrick Bennett, who was fired as the city's risk manager in November, charged before the Largo City Commission Tuesday night that City Manager Steve Stanton had made a decision in one case that resulted in the enrichment of the law firm of the city's lawyer, Alan Zimmet.
Telling the commission that he had promised at its meeting December 19 that he would cite cases of problems with the city's (read Stanton's) handling liability claims and litigation management.
He illustrated this Tuesday night with an example.
Bennett told of a lawsuit filed against the city in June, 2005, that alleged, among other things, false arrest and excessive force by the Largo Police Department.
"By mid-September 2005," Bennett related, "the plaintiff attorney had reduced the settlement demand to $25,000 and letters of apology from the city. This demand was down from an initial $100,000 demand. The city's only offer had been $2,500.
"On October 21, within days of being hired as risk manager, I reviewed the file and stated that the case could likely be settled for $15,000 to $20,000 without an apology and that it would be prudent to do so. At a meeting with the city manager November 4, I related that I felt the case could be settled for $15,000 and no apology. Contrary to the advice given him, the city manager stated we would not increase our $2,500 offer and that we would continue with litigation."
Bennett went on to tell the commission how the Zimmet Unice law firm continued to defend the case for another five months before it was settled for $25,000 on their recommendation.
He said the cost came to about $40,000 to $45,000 in additional legal bills and litigation related expense above the $15,000 to $20,000 that had already been billed through mid September plus the $10,000 that could have been saved with an early settlement.
"That amounts to $50,000 to $55,000 wasted through poor decision making by the city manager," Bennett said.
"You (the commission) can assume that the city attorney was not advising the city manager to settle, was not advising him at all, which is the norm when the city manager has an opinion. Continued defense of the case inured to the financial benefit of the city attorney," Bennett charged.
He sounded a warning to the commission. "When you ask for the city attorney's and city manager's written explanation of this case, which you should, and they explain that defense of the case fell apart late in litigation and it was therefore necessary to settle the case, you can and should be skeptical," Bennett said.
He went on - "They will state that the existence of a court order was critical to defense of the case and it could not be produced if it ever existed. The fact of the matter is that competent counsel could have and should have determined the existence of the critical piece of evidence early in the case and so advised the city to settle the case early on before such legal expenses and indemnity costs were incurred."
In his December 19 appearance before the commission, Bennett said, "Clearly, (Stanton) has neither the knowledge, training nor experience to make quality decisions on workers compensation or liability claims . . . and (Zimmet) should not be supervising any claims or litigation that may ultimately be handled by the Zimmet Unice Law Firm. This is, without question, a conflict of interest, that directly impacts (Zimmet) financially."
Bennett has made and received materials from the city on a public records request that involve the dealings of Zimmet, who is paid more than $2,000 a week as the city's lawyer, with the city.
Among those records are payments made to Zimmet along with some communications Bennett had with Zimmet's law firm while Bennett was employed by the city.
It appears that all seemed to be going well in Bennett's year-long career with the city until he began to raise some questions on Zimmet's billing to the city.
In fact, the day before he was fired in November he had received top grades in a job performance review.
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