This article is Part 5 of an ongoing series called #ARCorrectionsCrisis, which focuses on the dysfunction of the Arkansas Board of Corrections. We intend to track their actions and educate the public about their conduct until they finally prioritize Arkansas crime victims and the safety of our communities above their own power.
The attorney hired by the Arkansas Board of Corrections to represent them in their legal war against the state has submitted his first invoice—and it’s a doozy.
Much attention has been given to the hiring of this attorney, Abtin Mehdizadegan. Attorney General Tim Griffin has rightly argued that Mehdizadegan’s hiring was illegal due to the board’s failure to follow state procurement procedures. Last week, Chad Brown, Chief Financial Officer for the Department of Corrections, also sent a letter to the board stating he would not pay the legal invoice based on the procurement violations.
But little attention (if any) has been given to how much Mehdizadegan’s hiring is costing taxpayers. So let’s dive in.
It’s worth noting, before diving into the invoices, that the Board of Corrections has numerous full-time attorneys on staff that presumably could have handled this legal case. According to the department’s communications director Dina Tyler, Corrections actually has six full-time lawyers on staff.
Some of these attorneys provide counsel for inmates, but two work explicitly for the Board of Corrections.
The Board of Corrections could have (and probably should have) worked with the attorney general’s office to address their legal concerns. But instead, they hired a hot-shot Little Rock lawyer who is milking state taxpayers by the minute—or should I say, by the text message.
Through a public records request, Opportunity Arkansas received a copy of Abtin Mehdizadegan’s first invoice. It is 17 pages long and covers the timeframe from when legal work allegedly began (December 8) through the end of 2023 (December 31). Not including Christmas and New Year’s Eve days, this totals 15 business days, or 22 non-holiday calendar days.
Mehdizadegan is billing Arkansas taxpayers at a cool $285 per hour, while his associates are billing at a lower rate of $80 per hour.
In total, the legal team says they’ve worked 272 hours during this first billing period.
And the bill handed to taxpayers? $51,706 for just three weeks worth of work, or $2,155 per calendar day.
Now, how might this whip-smart legal team be working virtually every hour of the day? It’s true there are multiple people involved, so let’s take that into consideration. But there are some things that don’t seem to pass the smell test.
To be clear, I am not an attorney, and I don’t play one on television. But I did conduct a very thorough review of these invoices and spoke with multiple attorneys with private-sector legal experience to get some context on these practices. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who sees some questionable patterns.
And, most importantly, whether these are “normal” billing practices is moot, as the lawyers say. Because this isn’t a normal situation with a normal client—this is all on the taxpayer’s dime.
Here are some things that jumped out at me, especially with the Arkansas taxpayer in mind:
Mehdizadegan was “hired” by the Board of Corrections at their December 8 board meeting. The vote to hire Mehdizadegan was the very last order of business taken up that day, and the meeting concluded at noon.
But, apparently, Mehdizadegan got right to work. According to his invoice, he worked nearly nine hours that first day, for a total of $2,536.50, courtesy of hardworking Arkansans.
It’s an impressive amount of hustle, especially for a lawyer, but it also raises several questions:
A quick scan through the invoices and you’ll see some strange things pop out. For example:
Perhaps lawyers can disagree about whether or not these are reasonable charges (after all, disagreeing is their favorite activity), but that’s not really the point. The point is that Arkansas taxpayers are paying for this nonsense—by the text message.
While a lawyer talking to their client(s) seems perfectly reasonable, what seems odd is that Mehdizadegan is talking to each individual board member one-on-one, in some cases repeatedly, rather than all at once. This might seem like a small matter, but it certainly gives the impression that Mehdizadegan and the board are trying to avoid the public eye in regards to these discussions (a meeting of multiple board members would be subject to open meetings laws).
But perhaps more importantly, this strategy is milking taxpayers: instead of having a group half hour call to discuss legal matters, presumably to avoid public meeting requirements, Mehdizadegan is having a half-hour call with Board Member A; and then a half hour call with Board Member B, and so forth.
In some cases, these conversations with individual board members are lasting nearly three hours, like these “multiple telephone conferences” with Board Member Lee Watson:
It’s a big difference for taxpayers. A half hour group call is $142.50, per Mehdizadegan’s hourly rate. But five or six half hour calls? Pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
By far, Lee Watson appears to be Mehdizadegan’s favorite board member. The two have talked for more than 13 hours, to the tune of $3,733.50. Many of the conversations last at least an hour, some up to two hours. And in fact, as noted above, there were nearly three hours of talks in one day.
This is very odd because Lee Watson has publicly—and recently—assured Arkansans that he is very concerned about available funding for Corrections. Indeed, in his tirade on January 17, Watson said:
“...We need funding. We need to enhance our existing facilities to accommodate the expanding needs of the criminal justice system in Arkansas and we need to be able to attract, recruit, train, and retain critical staff. And we need this funding quickly.”
Watson went on to call for an “interim funding measure.”
But is Mr. Watson not so concerned about the legal bills he’s racking up? $52,000 is just the beginning. Mehdizadegan’s haul could easily surpass half a million dollars if the case continues into the summer.
There are a few open correctional officer positions currently open and posted online. These are the positions the Board says they must fill–to some unknown level–before they will agree to open more prison beds. It’s a “safety” issue, they say.
According to several postings for the West Memphis facility, the starting salaries for these positions are just under $40,000:
Postings for corporals in Pine Bluff are just over $42,000:
So the question must be asked: how many new officers could Corrections hire for what they are going to cumulatively waste on Mehdizadegan? And aren't they sacrificing the safety of inmates & officers by paying him?
That certainly seems like a question worth asking, and something Lee Watson should be very concerned about, if his cries for more money are indeed sincere.