Union County racking up legal bills

Union County has spent $73,120 on a high-profile Charlotte law firm that two commissioners say is representing them in a federal investigation.

Wyatt and Blake, LLP, has been hired to represent Chairman Allan Baucom and commissioners Parker Mills and Kevin Pressley, county invoices show. Baucom and Mills confirmed the attorneys were for an FBI investigation. Pressley said he couldn't comment.

That firm has worked with federal and state authorities in most types of criminal cases, according to its Web site. Previous clients include professional athletes, lawyers, doctors and contractors.

“If you're going to go, go with the best,” Baucom said. “The FBI probe was not something to take lightly.”

In February, the Observer reported that six people affiliated with Union County government had been contacted by FBI agents asking questions about how the county provides sewer service.

Baucom said the FBI was “fishing,” but he didn't know specifically what they were after. He said he believed they were looking into an exchange between a former county water-sewer board member and a developer.

County officials in January revealed they had turned over to the Union County district attorney a series of e-mails between Irene Broaddus and Charlotte developer Ashley Campbell. The e-mails addressed a county sewer approval his company wanted. She offered to lobby for the company in exchange for a fee of up to $37,500.

Broaddus disputed that claim.

“They have specifically told me I'm not the target of their investigation,” she said, of the FBI agents. “They told me when they interviewed me that this was part of a large-scale investigation into corruption by officials in Union County.”

An FBI spokeswoman this week said the agency could not comment.

In the past 18 months or so, fast-growing Union County has learned that it lacks enough sewer capacity to serve all the developers who want it. Developers have an estimated tens of millions of dollars riding on that service, a valuable resource in homebuilding.

Figuring out which developers will get sewer service has been controversial and confusing.

Commissioners have complained they were blindsided by the sewer shortage shortly before they fired former County Manager Mike Shalati in January 2007. They have refused to comment directly on the firing, citing personnel laws.

Shalati, in turn, has in a lawsuit accused three commissioners of meddling in sewer issues and asking him to break state utility regulations.