Lee Zurik Investigation: Reading email costs public big bucks

Published: May. 20, 2011 at 12:57 AM CDT|Updated: Mar. 30, 2012 at 4:48 PM CDT
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New Orleans - The RTA is refusing to answer FOX 8's questions about its lead attorney.

The attorney was recently appointed an interim traffic court judge in the city, but still does work for the RTA.

And it's the work and what he's asking to be paid for that raises some red flags.

At a recent board meeting, the RTA's lawyer unexpectedly left minutes after our FOX 8 camera arrived.

Maybe it's because we've been investigating him for months digging through hundreds of pages of his records.

"You shouldn't be the first person raising these questions. The RTA should be raising these questions," says Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman.

Since 2006, Attorney Sundiata Haley and his law firm Haley and McKee have made $860,000 of public money doing work for the RTA.

Records show the RTA is funded by passenger fares, but the majority of operating money comes from sales tax revenue and a federal subsidy.

In March, FOX 8 asked for some of Sundiata Haley's invoices, a detailed account of his billings, but didn't get it.

Instead, FOX 8 received a letter that showed his total earnings for the months we requested.

So we again asked for his invoices, and as FOX 8's attorney explained in a letter to the RTA, Haley "repeatedly asked what do you want?"

After that letter, the RTA sent over Haley's invoices.

"They are at least questionable if not frankly fraudulent based on what I've seen so far," said Friedman.

One of the invoices FOX 8 received was for Haley's billings in October of 2009. He charged $10,010 that month and records show he was paid on December 9th 2009.

But upon a closer look at the invoice, the one we were given was dated March 9, 2011, the same day we requested this specific invoice and the invoice number appears to fall in line with other invoices created this year.

"This strongly suggests this is not an authentic document," said Friedman.

One other invoice was dated in March of this year. All other Haley invoices were dated shortly after the invoiced month concluded.

"If I'm billing for work done in 2009 and I got paid in 2009, then I must have sent you a bill in 2009. And when this document says it's dated 2011, the date you requested, it can't be an authentic letter. It doesn't make sense," Friedman says.

Two of the four invoices FOX 8 requested were dated on the day, or shortly after we made the records request. Some computer programs may show the date printed and not created, but regardless it raises questions. Why wasn't the invoice on file at the RTA.

And there's more. FOX 8 looked closer at the invoices and found much of Haley's billings were for reviewing and creating emails.

Like in September of last year, Haley billed $52.50 to review an email regarding RTA featured in a morning update.

FOX 8 received a copy of the email Haley billed the RTA for 18 minutes of work to review.

"This is a press release. If I were a lawyer I wouldn't read it. It's sports headlines like saying who the Saints waived. This doesn't require any legal effort at all, certainly not 18 minutes," said Friedman.

In 2009, he again sent a bill. You and the public paid Haley $52.50 dollars to read an email. The subject was 'Mayor Nagin meets with federal officials in Washington.' The email shows it's a one page press release.

"Lawyers don't bill for reading press releases," Friedman pointed out.

And here is another example. Again, 18 minutes to read an email. The subject was 'Times Picayune article on RTA new buses.' The email shows it's a copy of a newspaper article from the Times Picayune. Again, the public paid the RTA attorney $52.50 to read.

"This is a newsp