Jefferson County taxpayers continue to fund former county commissioner Jim Congrove's legal bills, even though he hasn't worked for the county in nearly six months.
Those bills, already well above $160,000, will continue to grow, as a federal judge recently ordered a civil lawsuit against Congrove to go to trial in November. That lawsuit was filed by Mike Zinna, a longtime county critic who alleges that Congrove tried to deprive him of his constitutional rights by retaliating against him for his multiple open records requests and preventing him from speaking at public meetings. Zinna included the county and 18 other defendants in that case, according to the Jefferson County attorney's office. The county and all the other defendants were eventually dismissed from the litigation, but Congrove remains.
The county has paid about $160,000 for outside lawyers to defend Congrove in that lawsuit.
Congrove has been battling a medical condition since mid-January, according to his wife. He has not been available for comment since. Pat Tooley, the attorney hired by the county to represent Congrove, couldn't be reached for comment.
County Attorney Ellen Wakeman said in an e-mail that state law requires the county to pay Congrove's attorney bills until a court rules that Congrove acted outside the scope of his work as a county commissioner.
"The county defends the employees because the governmental immunity act provides for defense, and county employees should not have to pay out of their own pockets for the defense of merit-less litigation brought against them as county employees," Wakeman said. "The claims against Mr. Congrove have not yet been dismissed; however, various defenses remain, and the case has not gone to trial."
Zinna said in a phone interview that the county can't say it had nothing to do with Congrove's actions or that Congrove didn't act within his job duties and still pay for his defense fees.
"If the county believes it should pay for Congrove's defense, it should have no problem paying a multimillion-dollar judgment," Zinna said. "All the fancy lawyering in the world won't stop the public corruption trial of the century from being on display for 10 days in federal court."
Zinna's other case against Congrove alleges that he conspired with former county contractor Daril Cinquanta, former deputy county attorney Duncan Bradley and Robert Cook to illegally intercept his e-mails and post them to a website created to defame Zinna. Lawyers for Congrove, Cinquanta and Bradley recently lost a motion to dismiss that case, but it is still in the discovery phase.