Hennepin County Attorney contract for Londregan prosecutors spurs questions

Questions continue to swirl around the decision by the Hennepin County Attorney to hire outside lawyers to prosecute Minnesota state trooper Ryan Londregan.

Londregan is charged with murder, manslaughter and assault for killing motorist Ricky Cobb II during a traffic stop last summer.

The contract with a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, signed last week, is paying blended attorney fees of $850 an hour, with the contract initially capped at $1 million.

"I think one thing I am concerned about is just, when you start pulling money out of a budget we have allocated, who is not getting served," Hennepin County Commissioner Jeffrey Lunde told FOX 9’s Paul Blume during an interview.

Lunde had several fiscal-related questions for Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty at a board meeting last week, including the so-called burn rate about how quickly the outside lawyers might spend the allocated $1 million in the highly-litigated case that could take months to get to trial. 

"I am just wondering if there is a way we can offset some of the budget for this case," Lunde asked Moriarty.

One week later and he still has questions about Moriarty’s decision to hire Steptoe LLP to prosecute Londregan for the deadly traffic stop shooting that was captured on body and squad camera video.

"I have always tried to not have an opinion," explained Lunde, who worries about speaking out specifically on any one case that might affect his Hennepin County voters in the communities of Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Crystal, New Hope, Osseo and Robbinsdale.

Lunde points out that last week’s vote was not an endorsement of the hiring of outside counsel, but rather a decision to give the elected County Attorney the right to prosecute cases the way she sees fit.

"She is responsible to the voters," said Commissioner Lunde. "And it is my job, you know, to provide that funding. But it is also my job to ask those tough questions on a budget."

Moriarty is defending her decision to ink the 28-page contract with the D.C.-based law firm.

"What I can guarantee you is that I take fiscal responsibility very seriously," Moriarty told commissioners.

After the lead prosecutor stepped away from the case, Moriarty said hiring Steptoe was necessary because her office is already down 10 attorneys in its adult prosecution unit.

"We would have to pull at least three of our senior attorneys from their regular work to be handling this case alone. We cannot afford that right now," explained Moriarty at the time of the board vote.

The move immediately drew fire from Londregan’s legal team and questions from the Governor, who has the authority to intervene.

"We are watching it really carefully," Gov. Tim Walz told reporters last week. "I do not think it was a positive development if I can say that."

Londregan defense attorney Chris Madel told Blume, "They can hire 100 D.C. lawyers, they can hire a thousand D.C. lawyers – the results are going to be the same. I don't care."

Moriarty promised the board, the money can be fully absorbed in her current $78 million annual budget without any supplemental taxpayer money needed, and without taking away from other public safety priorities. Commissioner Lunde insists he will be watching.

"That was another one of my questions, what aren't we getting? And what other services are not being provided," asked Lunde, who remains concerned the first million dollars in legal services will not be enough. The contract calls for Moriarty to inform the board when billings reach $750,000.

Said Lunde, "I looked at my fellow commissioners and said, hey, ‘are we prepared to say no?’ Because once you are in, you are in. You build a house halfway, you can't, you gotta finish it. So, I think my big concern is not knowing."

In addition to legal fees, the contract calls for Hennepin County to pay for travel expenses for the new legal team that will be led by Karima Maloney, who spent a dozen years with the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Both sides are scheduled to be in court for a hearing next week.