Brandon Steele

Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh

CHARLESTON — At least one West Virginia lawmaker is questioning why the Department of Health and Human Resources chose a Washington, D.C., firm to handle the recent federal class-action lawsuit alleging the state is violating the rights of the more than 7,000 children in the foster care system.

Last week, The Herald-Dispatch reported Brown and Peisch PLLC had been hired to represent the state in the case at a rate of $575 an hour for legal fees. DHHR said out of five bidders, Brown and Peisch had the most experience at the lowest rate.

In a release Tuesday, Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said he wants answers “as to how and why a high-priced, out-of-state law firm was selected” to represent the state in the lawsuit.

“I’m deeply concerned that our state government has exclusively contracted with an out-of-state firm at such a high price,” Steele said in the release. “I am going to be sending letters to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the secretary of DHHR and Gov. Jim Justice asking for more details about this process. I want to know the reasoning behind how and why this happened because, as a lawyer, I can’t help but look at that and think, ‘That’s not right.’”

Steele said there are a number of well-staffed law firms in West Virginia that work in the foster care system on a daily basis, and he, as an attorney, did not see why they were not considered to be a part of the state’s legal team. He’s also concerned about how a firm with no offices in West Virginia might affect the legal costs in this case.

“I’m concerned about whether they’ll be asking for reimbursements for travel costs and lodging for having to visit Charleston or other parts of the state to access documents or case materials,” he said. “I have some real budgetary concerns here, because this case is not something we anticipated in our budget process, and could represent a significant cost for one of our largest state agencies.”

Steele said he would like to review the request for proposals, the bids submitted and any other documentation related to the selection process to see why this one firm was selected.

“If there is a legitimate reason why the state selected an out-of-state firm exclusively for this litigation — for probably twice the cost of what in-state firms bill — then, by all means, I think the people of West Virginia deserve to hear that answer,” he said.

Allison Adler, communications director for DHHR, said Tuesday the department used the policies set by the attorney general to bid for outside counsel. The Attorney General’s Office requested proposals from private attorneys to represent the state to ensure broad inclusion in the bidding process for a wide array of qualified firms, she said.

The request for proposal included 10 criteria, including expertise in child welfare systems, expertise in child welfare and class-action lawsuit litigation, and expertise in the various federal laws involved, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and title IV-E of the Social Security Act.

“Of all of the firms that applied, only Brown & Peisch addressed each criteria listed in the request for proposal,” Adler said. “Specifically, they have expertise in administrative litigation involving child and family service reviews conducted by the Children’s Bureau within the Administration of Children & Families. As part of the complaint, the plaintiffs allege that West Virginia has failed the child and family service reviews over the past 15 years. Understanding how these reviews are conducted and the purpose is vitally important to the defense of this lawsuit.”

Brown and Peisch previously represented DHHR in Michael T. v. Crouch, a federal class-action lawsuit that ended in a settlement. Adler said it ended favorably for the state.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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