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Law firm responds to Wyoming tribe's lawsuit, calling it 'vindictive and spurious'

Law firm responds to Wyoming tribe's lawsuit, calling it 'vindictive and spurious'

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Wind River

The Wind River runs along the outskirts of Riverton in October 2016. A Lander-based law firm has responded to a Northern Arapaho lawsuit, calling it "vindictive and spurious."

A Wyoming tribe and its law firm filed a “vindictive” lawsuit against the tribe’s former lawyers earlier this summer despite knowing the allegations were false, according to a Monday court filing by the accused attorneys.

The filing is a response to a lawsuit the Northern Arapaho Tribe filed July 29 against its former law firm, Lander-based Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd and managing partner, Kelly Rudd. The tribe accused the firm of failing to return tribal trust money, excessive and secretive billing practices, refusing to return the tribe’s legal documents, and failing to provide an accounting of all tribal trust money held by the former firm during its more than 30 years working for the tribe.

The filing also came on the same day two Wyoming attorneys working for the tribe asked the case’s judge to dismiss them from representing the tribe.

Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd denied the allegations after the lawsuit was filed in July, and documents obtained by the Star-Tribune — including wire transfer records and emails showing that the Lander firm returned about $930,000 of what it said was the last of the tribe’s money days after it was fired in June — raised questions about the tribe’s claims at the time.

Monday’s rebuttal further contradicts many of the allegations the tribe has made against the firm. The Lander firm returned all trust fund money; has always provided account details to the tribe and made transfers only after authorization from tribal leaders; kept costs under budgets approved by the Northern Arapaho Business Council; provided monthly billing statements that the business council approved; and provided detailed billing statements with time details when requested, the firm alleged in the court document.

“Despite these facts, all known by (tribal leaders), they filed a vindictive and spurious lawsuit against (Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd) and Rudd and issued press releases and other public statements for the purpose of defaming and damaging defendants,” the filing said.

The tribe fired the former law firm in June and hired Atlanta-based Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton.

A spokesman for the tribe called the allegations “nothing new” on Tuesday, but otherwise declined to address specific allegations in the Monday response.

“The tribe stands behind its complaint,” he said.

Northern Arapaho suit against former law firm illustrates tribal leadership divide

Scott Ortiz, the attorney defending the former firm, said the firm has recently finished returning records to the tribe. He said they’ll mail some remaining electronic files to the tribe.

A spokesman for the tribe said it would not consider the documents returned until Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd certifies them.

Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd have said it previously had not returned some legal documents because the tribe’s new law firm had refused to address concerns about conflicts of interest.

The firm and Ortiz also asked for sanctions against Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton because they allegedly violated rules governing attorneys in civil cases by filing a lawsuit they knew to be “frivolous in nature and made in bad faith.”

Also on Monday, two of the three Wyoming attorneys filed motions to withdraw from the cases. The tribe didn’t object to the request, according to court records. The Wyoming attorneys are working for the tribe because Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton lawyers representing the tribe aren’t licensed to practice law in the state.

The two lawyers, James Phillips and Geoffrey Phillips, didn’t respond to emails Tuesday afternoon seeking comment.

In addition, two of the six members of the business council, which is the tribe’s elected governing body, have defended Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd, calling the majority of the council’s allegations untrue.

The two business council members — Anthony “Al” Addison and Samuel Dresser — and two former casino managers sued Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton on Aug. 2, accusing the firm of improperly maneuvering to control tribal affairs and overseeing the retaliatory firings of the two former casino managers.

The Atlanta law firm has denied the allegations.

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Firm’s rebuttal

In its lawsuit, the Northern Arapaho Tribe has said its former law firm has excessively billed the tribe, using copies of a year’s worth of invoices totaling nearly $828,000 included in its original lawsuit complaint as evidence.

But that number was under the business council-approved budget of $840,000 for the year. The Star-Tribune also previously obtained an email from business council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter to Rudd informing the firm of its $840,000 budget for the year.

In the Monday response, Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd said allegations of excessive billing were illegitimate because the new law firm’s charges were much higher than its own, according to the response filing.

The Star-Tribune previously obtained a copy of a bill from Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton to the tribe. The bill showed that for May, the new firm billed $671.50 an hour for one of its attorneys and more than $475 an hour overall for the nine of its employees that worked on Northern Arapaho matters — much more than the roughly $200 an hour Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd have said they charged.

The bill also showed that the new law firm charged more than $79,800 for work and over $3,500 for expenses like transportation and meals in May.

That’s compared to the average of about $69,000 a month Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd charged between May 2018 and April, according to the copies of invoices the tribe included with its complaint when it filed the lawsuit.

The former law firm also made a counterclaim, saying the tribe breached its contract with the firm by not attempting to resolve any problems with Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd before firing it and didn’t give the firm a 30-day notice that its contract was being terminated.

The former firm has also said it hasn’t been paid for work in May, June or July. The work done after being fired was for other Northern Arapaho agencies.

The tribe’s spokesman said they disagree with Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd’s allegation and will “vigorously” fight it.

Northern Arapaho citizens' vote could authorize recall election of tribe's chairman

Personnel changes

The tribe’s July lawsuit was the first legal salvo following a monthslong shakeup by the majority of the business council of tribal advisers and management of its casinos.

First, the council voted 4-2 to not renew casino CEO Jim Conrad’s contract, which expired June 30. Then, the tribe fired Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd, followed by longtime lobbyist Mark Howell. The three changes were all made amid public allegations of wrongdoing or reckless and secretive spending.

The changes culminated in a General Council meeting Aug. 10 where tribal citizens overwhelmingly rejected a resolution calling for a recall election of Spoonhunter. The General Council — which is made up of all adult members of the tribe and has ultimate governing authority — also voted to ban Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd; Conrad; and Howell from working for the tribe again.

Tribal leaders have said the reason for the changes was to protect its sovereignty by no longer having non-Native American advisers influencing tribal affairs.

“For too long, the Northern Arapaho Tribe has been dominated by interests outside our community who have undermined our sovereign right as a people to govern ourselves,” four of the six business council members said in a statement accompanying a memo announcing the firing of Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd. “These forces have made millions upon millions of dollars for themselves while too many of our people suffer.”

But the former law firm has said it has always acted in the best interest of the tribe, even if that meant giving advice to that some tribal leaders didn’t want to hear.

“We’ve had enough of standing by and saying nothing while misguided people spread lies about our law firm and mischaracterize our work for the Northern Arapaho Tribe,” the firm said in an Aug. 7 letter. “We’ve fought hard for the Arapaho people for more than 35 years, winning rights for the Tribe to manage its own housing and social programs, operate and regulate its casino, protect its religious freedoms, and more.”

Follow reporter Chris Aadland on Twitter @cjaadland

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Chris Aadland covers the Wind River Reservation and tribal affairs for the Star-Tribune as a Report for America corps member. A Minnesota native, he spent the last two years reporting for the Wisconsin State Journal before moving to Wyoming in June 2019.

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