10/30/10 Editor’s Note: – Updated report on this issue: Wyoming Liability Pool Reaches Limit – Nixes More Coverage in Fremont Co. Rights Case

Lander—The bill for the five-year-old Fremont County federal voting rights lawsuit now stands at about $1 million, depending on how much U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson awards ACLU and other plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case. And it’s not over yet.

The Fremont County Board of Commissioners lost the heart of the case last April when Judge Johnson found persistent, endemic discrimination against Native Americans on the Wind River Reservation. But the board has decided to appeal a narrower issue—the judge’s rejection of the county’s proposed plans to redress voting rights violations under the at-large election format.

Judge Johnson dismissed the county proposals, one of which would have created a “Native American super-majority district” while electing the remaining four members at-large, as having been  “crafted in such a manner that they preserve the racial separation of the county.”

If the county loses again, the appeal could add thousands of dollars to the mounting bill.

For the 20 Wyoming counties and 88 towns and cities that— like Fremont County— are members of the Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool, it also could mean significant increases in the annual legal liability premiums charged by the pool. (The cities of Laramie and Cheyenne, and the counties of Natrona and Laramie, belong to another pool, the Wyoming Association of Risk Management, so would not be affected by the Fremont County case. Campbell County insures itself through a private company.)

Created by the Wyoming legislature in 1987, the Local Government Pool is a shared-risk cooperative that provides legal defense for local governments, most often in accident and injury cases.

Pool members pay rates set each year after an actuarial review. If claims exceed sufficient reserves, said Local Government Liability Pool executive director Mark Pring, rates go up.

According to Pring, the pending claims in the Fremont lawsuit are the largest in the Local Government Legal Liability Pool’s 23-year history, amounting to more than a third of last year’s total of $2.6 million in premiums, which the pool terms “contributions.”  The biggest previous payout, Pring said, was in the range of $500,000 in an accident case.

Pring said the Wyoming pool currently has $3,556,826 in its pending case reserve fund, more than enough to cover the current Fremont County claims.

But the issue of how much the pool—and therefore Wyoming counties and cities—will owe for Fremont County’s costly legal defense in the voting rights case, and for the anticipated costs of the county’s appeal, will be discussed Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010 in a key executive-session meeting of the organization’s board of directors in Cheyenne.

According to Pring, Cheyenne attorney Richard Rideout, the pool’s legal counsel on retainer, will advise the seven-member board on their responsibility in the case. Rideout, whom the pool paid for his extensive legal involvement in the Fremont case, could not be reached for comment despite WyoFile’s repeated e-mail and telephone attempts.

Doug Thompson, the Sweetwater Station rancher who is chairman of the Fremont County commissioners, expects the Local Government Liability Pool to foot the entire bill.

“They’ve assured us that they are going to stick with us,” said Thompson. “They’ve been with us from the beginning and they’ve been very good to deal with.”

Since the lawsuit was filed in 2005, the pool has paid $203,000 for the county’s attorney fees, expert witnesses, and other expenses in the case. The payments include out-of-pocket expenses for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Colorado-based non-profit that led the defense pro bono and did not charge for legal work.

On September 23, the ACLU and other plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case filed in federal court for $881,491.30 in legal billing hours, paralegal hours, and expenses. As the losing side in the lawsuit, Fremont County—or its insurer—must pay whatever portion of these costs the judge awards the victorious plaintiffs.

But the willingness of other local governments to continue to support Fremont County’s defense in a civil rights case may have reached its limit.

“All of these little towns and counties contribute to this pool,” said Riverton Mayor John Vincent. “Why should they contribute to fund a fight that has nothing at all to do with them?”

The legal issues concern the political representation of the minority Native American population on the Wind River Reservation. Since the state’s only reservation lies almost entirely inside Fremont County, the outcome of the case does not affect any other of the state’s 23 counties or non-Fremont County municipalities.

According to Pring, Fremont County paid $124,994 into the pool in the last fiscal year, a little more than a tenth of what the lawsuit is expected to cost the pool, not counting the cost of the appeal.

In a strongly worded October 1, 2010 editorial, “Let Fremont Pay for Indian Voting Rights Appeal,” the Casper Star-Tribune urged liability pool board members not to fund the Fremont County appeal in the case.

“The liability pool should cut its losses and tell Fremont County if it insists on appealing so it can continue a racially discriminatory voting system, the county can pay for it on its own,” the editorial argued. “Then the voters should hold the current commissioners accountable for their costly decision in this case.”

Fremont County commission chairman Doug Thompson was not impressed.

“The Casper Star editorial board is not responsible to the citizens of Fremont County and they [editorial writers] have been opposed to any defense in this case from the beginning,” Thompson said. “We are not going to let that editorial board dictate our policy.”

Thompson said he expected continued support from the Local Government Liability Pool.

“They’ve never told us, ‘Hey, you guys are using up all our insurance money,’” he said.

However, that could possibly change as early as the liability board meeting on Thursday. WyoFile has learned from a reliable source close to the case that Rideout has sought advice from at least one outside attorney in determining the extent of the pool’s obligations. According to that source, a lawyer whom Rideout contacted has advised him that while the pool is responsible for the legal and court costs of the unsuccessful defense in the original lawsuit, it should not pay for an appeal.

Several liability board members contacted by WyoFile declined comment, saying it was a confidential issue because it involves litigation, though the board itself is not involved in the litigation.

10/30/10 Editor’s Note: – Updated report on this issue: Wyoming Liability Pool Reaches Limit – Nixes More Coverage in Fremont Co. Rights Case

Rone Tempest was a longtime national and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. In 2004 he was part of a team of reporters to win the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the massive wildfires in Southern...

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