More questions than answers surround Mayor Vaughan’s personal legal bill

by Roch Smith Jr.

YES! Weekly broke the story last week that the City of Greensboro was paying for Mayor Nancy Vaughan’s personal legal bills. That raised a host of questions. The answers are troubling.

Vaughan had been summoned to a deposition in a lawsuit against the city brought by downtown property owner Eric Robert who said he had been promised public funds to help pay for rehabilitating the old Daily Bread Flour Mill. The City of Greensboro disagreed that any funds were promised or owed. The city hired its own firm to represent the city and the mayor in her official capacity at the deposition. Vaughan hired her own attorney, Amiel Rossabi, to represent her individually.

News accounts at the time reported Vaughan as saying, two weeks before her reelection, that she was going to pay for Rossabi’s personal representation. On May 20 the city paid Rossabi’s bill of $8,150.50 for representing Vaughan.

City Attorney Tom Carruthers says he advised Vaughan that she should have her own attorney in the event that a conflict, or even an apparent conflict, were to develop between the mayor’s interests and those of the city during the deposition. Carruthers could not remember when he gave the mayor that advice. Vaughan has said she hired her own attorney because she wasn’t going to be “bullied.”

Whether Vaughan intended to pay for Rossabi’s legal fees and later changed her mind or whether she knew all along she would not is not clear. She did not respond to questions submitted to her by this column’s deadline.

Here’s what we do know from the public record. The bill submitted to the city for representing Vaughan shows itemized charges beginning on October 6, 2015, two weeks before Vaughan and Rossabi have said Rossabi was hired.

When it turned out that there was no conflict between the city’s interests and Vaughan’s interests, Carruthers says it became okay for the city to pay the mayor’s bills. It is unclear if Vaughan asked for the city to pay her bill or if the city offered. Carruthers didn’t know who initiated the idea.

Rossabi’s bill was originally for $12,120.50—a rate of $500 per hour. It was received by the city on February 17. Vaughan said she had no copy of a bill. Whether Vaughan reviewed the bill for accuracy was one of the questions she did not respond to.

The city initially formally responded to requests for copies of this invoice by saying it was confidential attorney client communications and denying its release. It took a visit to the city attorney’s office by this columnist to get that decision reversed. It also, disturbingly for me and the city employees involved, backed them into an uncomfortable situation where they felt it necessary to tell me the invoice was waiting for me in the city’s public relations office when, in fact, what was waiting for me was an unsigned twosentence paragraph explaining why the invoice was going to be kept confidential.

The day the original invoice was received, Carruthers says he told Rossabi $500 per hour was too much for city work, and the bill was negotiated down to $8,545.80 ($300/hour). The city paid that on May 20.

Carruthers justifies paying Vaughan’s bill by citing a city policy that allows it to pay for legal representation for city officials in defense of “a claim or suit filed against an officer or an employee.” There was no claim or suit filed against Vaughan. Carruthers said that is “immaterial.”

In a memo from the city’s Legal Department to the City Treasury authorizing payment, Chief Deputy City Attorney Becky Jo Peterson-Buie says that the city entered into a “professional services agreement” with Rosabbi’s firm. The effective date of that contract was October 15, 2015.

The contract also was explicitly to assist the city “in the collection of delinquent tax assessments.” The effective date was nine days after Rossabi first started billing for representing Vaughan.

If a contract for tax collection services could be somehow assumed to extend to providing personal legal representation for the mayor, then the provisions of the contract should have been followed. The tax collection agreement required Rosabbi’s firm to notify the city for further instructions when a billing threshold of $2,900 was reached. Rossabi racked that up midway through the first deposition.

Carruthers says he doesn’t remember if he received formal notification from Rossabi that the bill had reached the notification threshold, but that he knew things we moving quickly and the amount was going to go over. He did not remember if he gave explicit permission to Rossabi to continue.

Two weeks before the election, the mayor said she was going to pay for her own attorney at the deposition. Two weeks prior to the election, she could hardly say otherwise. But we deserve some answers from our mayor: Why did she say she was going to pay Rossabi’s fees and what changed her mind? Why did she think it was necessary to hire her own attorney? Did she think all along that the city would eventually pay the bill? Who made the decision to have the city pay the bill?

Greensboro deserves a mayor who is more forthcoming. We deserve a mayor whose self-interests do not compromise the integrity of city government. The election in 2017 will see a city council and mayor elected for a four-year term instead of the current two. Voters are likely to be more careful in the deliberations knowing they will be stuck with their choices for a longer period. If Mayor Vaughan cannot reorient her posture towards transparency and honesty, voters will surely reject the thought of her as mayor for four more years. !