Chapter Twenty-Three: Fog of War: Opponents fall for misdirection

(Twenty-third in a series)

We [the opposition’s leading figures] were all working independently and were not even necessarily congenial with one another. There were no gatherings to discuss what we should do, no lawyers or public relations consultants to guide us, no word coming down from the top…”

Convention center critic and Newslanc publisher, Robert Field, on other opponents of the convention center project.

After PKF was chosen in mid-February 2006, many critics of the Convention Center project turned their attention to the payments made by the Convention Center Authority to the law firm at the center of virtually every aspect of this project: Stevens & Lee.

By 2006, Stevens & Lee had billed (and been paid by) the LCCCA more than six million dollars. Every single one of the more than 200 invoices was devoid of itemized detail with respect to the work performed. Each invoice simply read:

For professional services rendered on behalf of the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority.”

In December of 2005, Robert Field launched Newslanc.com. On the website, which was updated daily, Field wrote a “Watch Dog” column, in which he would discuss and often praise or criticize local items published in the Lancaster newspapers, with particular attention given to the convention center issue.

NewsLanc newsletters were also handed out at the popular Lancaster Central Market, the minor league Lancaster Barnstormers’ baseball games, and other county events that attracted large crowds. (Field often joined in handing out the fliers, something he occasionally does today.)

Field, drawing from years as a political activist, often ran lively, often pointed, radio spots for NewsLanc at popular Lancaster stations.

Through the Pennsylvania Right to Know law, NewsLanc obtained the invoices for the Stevens & Lee LCCCA billings. There were 228 invoices ranging in amounts from less than one hundred dollars to more than $100,000.

Field analyzed the invoices and concluded that Stevens & Lee would have had to have multiple personnel working full-time on the project to come up with the amounts being charged, which he believed was inconceivable.

To Field, in the early months of 2006, the seemingly cavalier withholding of normal billing procedures was a red flag, and he was determined to get the itemized invoices released. “I took the bait,” he said a few years later.

Joining Field in aggressively questioning the Stevens & Lee invoices were the three new county-appointed members of the LCCCA board of directors.

Laura Douglas, Deb Hall, and Jack Craver – three strong, independent personalities — had already revealed their disenchantment with the project by the time they began asking about the attorneys’ fees.

In early January, 2006, only months after being appointed to the board, the three convened a large public meeting to air out questions about the project. More than 200 people attended the meeting. This was the infamous meeting attended by newly-elected Mayor Rick Gray.

Now, Douglas, Hall, and Craver were asking about the invoices at LCCCA board meetings.

The issue with the Stevens & Lee bills for me was that it seemed like a lot of money was being paid for this work,” said Douglas after she left the board. “I wanted a ’spot forensic’ to see if the work we were being charged took that amount of time. But we couldn’t get any answers from Ted.”

‘Ted,’ of course, was Ted Darcus, the imperious chairman of the LCCCA board, who consistently and often rudely denied the public and even board members access to itemized invoices, saying they contained confidential information and would not be available as long as there was ongoing litigation.

In June of 2006, another county LCCCA appointee, Deb Hall, whose day job was then president of the Ephrata Chamber of Commerce, and who was a former paralegal, introduced a resolution to hire an independent legal auditor to review the Stevens & Lee bills. The proposal was voted down by the city-majority of the LCCCA board.

It seemed the entire opposition to the project was focused on the Stevens & Lee invoices. Former Lancaster city councilman, Luis Mendoza, wrote (with Field’s assistance) multiple letters to the editor and appeared at LCCCA board meetings demanding the full release of the invoices.

The always entertaining Ron Harper, Jr., in his inimitable fashion, also demanded the bills’ release. Harper appeared at LCCCA meetings with a large cardboard cutout of Authority solicitor (and Stevens & Lee partner) John Espenshade. Harper would make his remarks with his arm around “Flat John,” as he asked the non-responsive Espenshade about the bills during the public comment portion of the meetings. This never failed to garner laughs, even from Darcus and other project supporters.

Craver, the former general manager of New York’s Plaza Hotel, had written a published letter to the editor to one of the Lancaster Newspapers in which he criticizes the project’s lack of a feasibility study, financing, and the administration of the LCCCA board under Darcus, including the refusal to allow the Stevens & Lee invoices to be scrutinized. Craver copied his letter to the Governor and Attorney General.

What Field, the dissident LCCCA board members, and others questioning the Stevens & Lee bills did not know at the time, but subsequently learned, was that the firm had personnel working full-time on the project, and were its de facto developers and managers.

The time and energy the opponents to the convention center project devoted to the Stevens & Lee invoices was misplaced. During this period, the first six months of 2006, important contracts were being drafted, and they were being made without scrutiny.

Key agreements concerning bond financing; architectural design; shared space between the hotel and convention center; naming rights; permit waivers; consultant contracts; demolition of historic property and others were rammed through by Darcus with the votes of the other three city appointees over the pleas for more time to review by the county appointed minority.  Thereafter, the agreements were overlooked as the opposition focused its limited resources on the Stevens & Lee invoices.

Robert Field, with a well-earned reputation for unsparing and often harsh criticism of the foibles of others, is equally blunt with his self appraisal:

The big mistake was that we did not voice objections at the very next meeting after having thoroughly reviewed the one-sided agreements. Instead, we took the Stevens & Lee invoices bait.

We [the opposition’s leading figures] were all working independently and were not even necessarily congenial with one another. There were no gatherings to discuss what we should do, no lawyers or public relations consultants to guide us, no word coming down from the top…

The Stevens & Lee invoices issue seemed to suggest ongoing corruption as did the almost million dollars paid to Daniel Logan for services that remain obscure. It took until the end of litigation and the obtaining of the data behind the invoices before we recognized that Stevens & Lee with other high priced consultants were actually running the show on a daily basis.  It helped explain why Ted Darcus and David Hixson would not allow discussions at the meetings. They were but bystanders!”

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Chapter 24: Totaro’s Inquisition

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