Flint, MI— Flint Community Schools’ former legal counsel Kendall Williams of the Williams Firm P.C. is under investigation after allegations that he charged the district exorbitant legal fees for years.
Attorney Cha’Ris Lee, who now represents Flint Community Schools, is conducting the investigation and reported some of her findings during a board meeting on Oct. 13.
Her team claims the Williams Firm “allegedly engaged in excessive staffing of assignments, completed unnecessary work, engaged in conflict of interest, double-billed for time other attorneys or professionals have performed on matters, and likely breached fiduciary duties.”
Williams represented the district for more than 20 years before the board voted to terminate his contract on June 16, 2021. On average, his firm charged Flint Schools $750,000 per year, which came from the district’s general fund, Lee said.
Williams also allegedly colluded with former board members Diana Wright and Vera Perry in order to continue the “cycle” of excessive billing, and “retaliated” when the board and administrators questioned the fees, Lee said.
“Attorney Williams allegedly abused his influence over the board as an attorney to attempt to rid the district of anyone who would disagree with the fees,” Lee said. “So, I’ve spoken to multiple former superintendents, board members, and also former administrators who agree with this assertion that any statements made against the Williams Firm while they were legal counsel for the district, they would retaliate against that person, and they would either eventually end up leaving the district or having some type of issue in the district.”
Wright said she was “not privy” to this specific information and could not speak on it.
“I am no longer on the board and wish that the current board would focus their attention on current matters that need their attention, such as strategic planning, infrastructure, and overall district improvement and academic achievement,” Wright said.
Perry did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Upon reviewing the last six months of invoices, Lee said there were several instances of “repetitive billing,” meaning several attorneys charged for doing the same work, charged for reviewing each other’s work, charged for email correspondence between one another, and charged for “unnecessary” legal conferences.
Lee said she has not yet totaled the alleged overcharges, saying it would require further investigation and a forensic audit. At her recommendation, the board voted 7-0 for Plante Moran to perform the forensic investigation and to file a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission.
Williams said the allegations are “totally false” and that his firm did not bill excessively.
“We, over this past 20 years serving as board counsel, provided those legal services that were required of us pursuant to our representation agreement with the Flint School Board,” Williams said. “Our bills, contrary apparently to representations made by certain peoples, they were not vague. They were generally always very specific: who did the work, the date that the work was done, a description of the work that was performed, and the amount of time that was performed.”
He said since 2018 the firm billed an average of $400,000 per year and worked an excess of 7,200 hours.
“It wasn’t duplicative. It was all work required by the board,” he said, “We don’t just simply do work at our whim. We take direction from the board. We take direction from the board president and superintendents of the school district.”
Williams also said that while he has met with former board members over dinner to discuss matters, it was professional and there was no conflict of interest.
Williams has worked on several cases for the district in the past five years including helping to secure $9 million from the Flint Water Crisis settlement for special education programs in Flint and Genesee County.
As part of the settlement, the Genesee Intermediate School district agreed to pay Flint Schools $1.2 million for special education transportation costs, special education staffing, and other, non-monetary supplemental support.
Williams also represented Flint Schools in a lawsuit to change the GISD’s “unfair” special education funding formula. State Superintendent Michael Rice ruled in favor of Flint Schools, saying the formula was “illegal” and did not meet the needs of Flint students. As a result, Flint Schools saw an annual $288,000 increase in special education funds.
Williams said that the district has seen immense superintendent turnover, which has contributed to their higher-than-average legal fees.
Former superintendent Bilal Tawwab stepped down in 2018. Derrick Lopez was appointed shortly after but was then fired by the board in June 2020. Anita Steward, who was serving as assistant superintendent at the time, took over as superintendent in July 2020.
“That involves investigating allegations of misconduct, negotiating new contracts, negotiating severance agreements. I frankly can’t think of a school district in the Genesee County that has had three superintendents in the last three years,” Williams said.
Steward is now on family and medical leave and is suing the board for allegedly preventing her from performing her duties as superintendent. It is not clear when and if she will return. Former assistant superintendent Kevelin Jones is now serving as interim superintendent in her absence.
“It’s disconcerting that Individuals who don’t have any knowledge about the direction that we were given by former boards of education don’t understand or know anything about the scope and nature of the legal services we were required to provide,” Williams said, referring to the recent appointments of two new board members. “And it’s disconcerting that these allegations were made for the obvious, intended purpose of disparaging our reputation, as well as the very fine reputations of former members of the Flint School Board.”
Williams said he is not yet sure how he plans to proceed as it depends upon the future actions of the board.