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Law firm that specializes in municipality now coming under increased scrutiny

Law firm that specializes in municipality now coming under increased scrutiny

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When the group Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment planned a recent protest in downtown Clayton, it didn’t picket the county executive, prosecuting attorney or even the police department.

Instead, the group showed up at a nondescript, eight-story office building encased in dark glass at the corner of South Bemiston and Bonhomme avenues.

On the second floor of that building is the law firm Curtis, Heinz, Garrett and O’Keefe, St. Louis County’s premier municipal firm.

Its lawyers represent more than 20 municipalities in St. Louis County in roles such as prosecutor, judge and city attorney.

They are among the lawyers seen as profiting off the county’s municipal fragmentation and its courts, which, some argue, unfairly target the poor.

“They are the ones who are perpetuating this whole system,” said Jeff Ordower, MORE’s director.

Perhaps the firm’s most well-known member of late is Stephanie Karr, Ferguson’s city attorney and prosecutor. This month, Ferguson was the subject of a blistering Department of Justice report that accused the city of using fines and fees to buttress its revenue.

Karr was singled out for helping get rid of a red light camera ticket for former Ferguson Municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer in Hazelwood, where she also serves as prosecutor.

Keith Cheung, another principal in the firm, is a prosecutor in several municipalities, including St. Ann, where between 2005 and 2013, court revenue climbed from $437,000 to $3.1 million.

But long before the county’s municipal courts came under a national spotlight, the firm, which was founded in the mid-1980s and now employs around 16 lawyers, had earned a reputation for assembling a legal municipal dream team with expertise in everything from tax increment financing to housing law.

Last year, the part-time municipal gigs brought a wide range of payments to the firm, from $7,622 from Bellerive Acres, where Karr worked as prosecuting attorney, to $255,473 from Hazelwood, where Karr serves as prosecutor and Kevin O’Keefe serves as city attorney.

“It’s really an all-star cast, to be honest with you,” said Jerome Wallach, a longtime St. Louis area lawyer.

A little less than half of the firm’s business comes from its municipal work, said Carl Lumley, the firm’s president.

On Monday, the firm met with members of MORE, and then issued a five-page statement arguing that though municipal courts could be improved, they still are essential components of local governments.

“We do not believe that any local municipality or court should be dissolved against the will of the members of the community,” the statement said.

The statement also said that members of the firm had met with other groups, including Arch City Defenders, the St. Louis University Law Legal Clinic and the Missouri attorney general’s office.

Among the reforms the firm has endorsed are increasing the availability of public defenders, eliminating the suspension of drivers license for failing to appear, eliminating jailing people for minor offenses and establishing a method of using community service instead of fines.

In an interview, Lumley expressed concern about a proposal in the Legislature that would cap revenue from traffic fines at 10 percent. The bill could mean the end of some cities that depend on court revenue.

Lumley said the cities the firm represents want to continue to exist.

“I feel by and large that the public in St. Louis County likes to have their communities,” he said. “Most of these communities have been around for a long time and have very distinct flavors to them.”

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Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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