Legal invoices show Ontario School District spent thousands to resolve complaints

ONTARIO – The Ontario School District $80,000 on outside investigators to look into complaints brought to the board, including allegations against board members that later resulted in censure votes.

The costs were disclosed in invoices sent to the district by legal firms and obtained by the Enterprise through a public records request. Some information was disclosed only after it was ordered released by Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe.

The invoices document thousands of dollars spent resolving complaints against the district. They also show that Ontario paid out $80,263 over two months for outside professional services to Ogletree, Deakings, Nash, Smoak & Stewart PC, an international firm. Its costs weren’t itemized in the invoices.

The invoices show, though, that the board turned to attorneys to handle complaints against board members and for challenges to administrative decisions. The records show then-Board Chair Renae Corn also repeatedly sought legal guidance over months to deal with public records requests.

According to Taryn Smith, district public relations and communications coordinator, the Ontario district budgeted $27,000 for legal fees during the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

The budget for legal expenses was later revised to $137,000, and the district spent $117,086.05. The district used unexpected state school funds to cover the extra expense.

“When a school district’s budget is set they are essentially making their best guess as to the exact amount of money they will be receiving (from the State School Fund),” Nikki Albisu, superintendent of the Ontario School District, said in an email. “This is because we usually have to set the budget prior to receiving the actual allocation. Because of this, we generally anticipate a somewhat lower revenue than we actually receive so that we aren’t overspending.”

The Enterprise in June requested legal invoices for expenses investigating complaints taken to the school board. The majority of the legal invoices were issued by Garrett Hemann Robertson PC., a Salem-based firm. 

There are also invoices for Yturri Rose LLP of Ontario. 

Entries on the invoices paint a picture of a school year complicated by various staff and parent complaints. 

But cryptically, the largest amounts charged on the invoices are for costs advanced from “outside professional service” Ogletree, Deakings, Nash, Smoak & Stewart PC. These costs were charged on two separate occasions – $63,513.50 in May and $16,749.50 in March – and account for the bulk of the district’s reported legal spending in the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Ogletree, Deakings, Nash, Smoak & Stewart is an international firm with more than 50 offices across the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Europe.

The managing shareholder of their Portland office, Jacqueline M. Damm, specializes in “all aspects of traditional labor law, but she has also developed a significant practice in preventative law and employment law,” according to the firm’s website. The firm didn’t work directly for the district but was retained by the Garrett Hemann law firm, according to the invoices.

The attorney who dealt with the Enterprise throughout the process of obtaining the legal invoices was Wyatt Baum of Baum Smith LLC in La Grande. 

The Enterprise first contacted the Ontario School District on June 14 about obtaining a copy of the legal invoices related to complaints from the 2020-2021 fiscal year, along with copies of any contracts with law firms for the purpose of investigating and advising on complaints. 

On June 30, the district replied to the Enterprise that there were no such contracts, and provided only one monthly invoice, saying that others would arrive “soon.” 

On July 1, Taryn Smith provided a new set of invoices but with some entries on the bills – including the date, the general purpose and the cost – blacked out. In subsequent days, she and Baum cited a variety of legal reasons why the information should be kept from the public. They said the information would infringe on the attorney-client privilege, invade some individuals’ privacy or wasn’t the type of information requested by the Enterprise.

On July 22, the Enterprise filed a public records petition to Goldthorpe, explaining why the redactions, which obscured important details of the invoices, ran counter to the intent of Oregon public records law. By law, Goldthorpe decides on public records matters involving local government. On July 30, Goldthorpe ruled in the Enterprise’s favor. 

“Nothing in the unredacted versions contains the type of sensitive information that would be justified to be redacted,” Goldthorpe wrote in his ruling. “In fact, the private citizen’s name that appears the most has already received extensive coverage in the media for her complaints against the district.” 

Baum provided the Enterprise with copies of some of the unredacted invoices later that day. 

On Aug. 4, the Enterprise notified Baum and Taryn Smith that it appeared that some of the invoices from the fiscal year were missing. The Enterprise received copies of the missing invoices on Aug. 9 after a second records request to the district.

Separately, a lawsuit filed against the Ontario School Board by the Enterprise is pending in Malheur County Circuit Court. That case seeks copies of investigative findings, including into allegations against current board member Eric Evans and former board member Derrick Draper.  

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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