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Firms fight Detroit’s bid for $10M refund

Sheryl Robinson Wood could be on the hook for the $10 million tab owed to Detroit for legal fees incurred while she monitored the city’s police department.

Federal prosecutors said in a filing last week that Robinson Wood — not her former Baltimore and Washington, D.C., employers, Saul Ewing LLP and Venable LLP — should owe the city after an inappropriate relationship between Wood and Detroit’s then-mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was discovered.

Lawyers for Detroit had earlier requested that Robinson Wood and the firms that previously employed her, including consulting firm Kroll Inc., pay the fees.

In an ex parte motion from Saul Ewing and Venable to exceed the page limit on their memorandum in opposition to the city’s motion for sanctions and disgorgement of fees, the firms said Detroit “seeks to extract a windfall from non-culpable non-parties without ever alleging — let alone proving — their wrongdoing.”

The firms said the city never questioned the quality of Robinson Wood’s work or the conduct of Saul Ewing or Venable. Additionally, they said the communications, meetings and discussions that led to Robinson Wood’s resignation occurred prior to her employment at the firms.

In a Thursday filing, Kroll argued that it should not have to pay for Robinson Wood’s misconduct. An attorney for Saul Ewing and Venable did not respond to a request for comment and an attorney for Kroll declined to comment.

But, according to the city’s November motion, the three firms “benefited handsomely” from Robinson Wood’s monitoring work.

“In fact, Venable continues to seek payment as evidenced by a July 2, 2010, motion seeking fees and expenses up to and even beyond the date Wood tendered her resignation to the court,” the city said.

Venable asked Detroit to pay almost $100,000 in fees and expenses incurred by Robinson Wood and her colleagues, but the city said that would constitute rewarding improper conduct.

According to the bills submitted by Venable, the law firm charged Detroit $525 an hour for Robinson Wood’s services. It also charged $450 an hour for an associate’s time and $240 an hour for a third employee, presumably a paralegal.

Saul Ewing was paid nearly $2.5 million by Detroit during the time it employed Robinson Wood, and Venable received about $1.4 million.

Robinson Wood resigned from her position in July 2009, after spending six years as independent monitor of the police department. The court found she had “engaged in undisclosed communications, as well as meetings of a personal nature,” according to federal prosecutors’ filing in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan on Nov. 29.

The FBI discovered text messages between Robinson Wood and Kilpatrick deemed inappropriate by the court. Last month, a lawyer representing the family of a slain stripper, whose murder touched off the investigation into Kilpatrick, wrote in court documents that Robinson Wood and Kilpatrick had an affair, according to a report in the Detroit Free Press.

Based on Kilpatrick’s testimony in the murder case, Norman Yatooma, the lawyer for the woman’s family, said Detroit’s then-mayor “struck up a friendship with Wood and eventually engaged in an extra marital affair with her,” in a court filing.

A lawyer believed to be representing Robinson Wood did not respond to a call for comment.