WVU legal spending up significantly
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The head of West Virginia University's legal division has significantly increased the university's spending on outside lawyers over the past few years, including a dramatic increase in payments to a firm where he was once a partner.
WVU vice president of legal affairs William Hutchens said the spending is necessary as the state-run university expands. Under his tenure, WVU has worked to expand its footprint in Morgantown and dealt with a high-profile exit from the Big East athletic conference.
In the two years and nine months before WVU President Jim Clements hired Hutchens away from Jackson Kelly, the university spent $3 million on outside legal work, according to figures provided by Hutchens' office.
From the time Hutchens arrived in mid-March 2010 through the end of November 2012, WVU paid $6.2 million to outside law firms. That figure is inflated somewhat by a $1.1 million payment the university made through Steptoe & Johnson to buy property from another company, according to state auditor's records.
One beneficiary of the university's legal spending has been Jackson Kelly. Hutchens was once a partner in the firm's Morgantown office.
In the two-year-and-nine-month period before Hutchens arrived at WVU, the university paid Jackson Kelly about $110,000.
Since Hutchens arrived, the university had paid Jackson Kelly at least $1.9 million.
That's a 1,600 percent increase.
The legal work is not bid out. Hutchens said the decisions about what firms to hire were his and based on his years of experience.
"My expertise and experience allows me to be the judge of who the best attorney or attorneys are for the specified legal need," he said.
Hutchens said a question about the increase in work for Jackson Kelly was "a fair question."
"My answer is a couple fold: At the end of the day, these decisions are mine and I owned them, I want to make that clear once again," he said.
He said he resigned his partnership at the firm and has no financial interest in Jackson Kelly's work. He said he intends to retire from WVU.
"I intend to be in this position until I retire," Hutchens said.
He said some of the work pre-dates his arrival and that WVU's long-time financial guru, Narvel Weese, prefers to use Jackson Kelly on transactions.
Hutchens also picked his old firm to handle WVU's exit from the Big East. Hutchens pointed to honors the firm won from a legal publication for its work.
"That's the answer: They do good work," he said.
No other firm has gotten as much business from WVU during Hutchens' tenure, according to the figures provided by his office. The nearest is Shuman, McCuskey & Slicer, which WVU has paid $1.2 million since Hutchens took control of the university's legal office, compared to $490,000 in the same period before Hutchens joined.
Hutchens said of the 16 private firms he's turned to, a dozen are in-state firms.
"That's one thing I am really proud of, frankly, we are able to hire really top notch outside legal expertise from the state of West Virginia," he said.
Why not just hire more in-house attorneys? Hutchens said he has eight attorneys in his office, including attorneys who work on the university's health sciences campus, which houses the university-affiliated hospital.
(Hutchens made $215,000 in 2011, according to the state auditor's office, which has not yet updated its figures for 2012.)
Hutchens said hiring a larger staff of in-house attorneys might not be a good alternative to hiring private lawyers. For instance, the university turns to specialists when the university needs to float bonds, but Hutchens said it might not make sense to have a full-time bond counsel working for WVU.
"Everybody that is employed in-house, you've got them on your payroll, but that includes not only salary but overhead," Hutchens said. "You've got to try to think of the whole thing and have some sense of what your daily flow is internally."
The university also has to pay fees to the state Attorney General's Office to look over certain contracts. That amounted to about $17,000 in the period before Hutchens arrived and about $24,000 in the time after he arrived.