The wife of a likely Senate candidate averages a 26.5-hour work week in her $240,000-a-year job doing legal consulting for an Indianapolis suburb, according to timesheets reviewed by The Associated Press.
Unlike many government contract attorneys who are paid by the hour or project, Jennifer Messer receives the same $20,000 monthly check from Fishers regardless of how much she works. Since signing the contract in early 2015, Messer logged a full 40-hour week just once, working about 50 hours between March 28 and April 3, 2016.
Legal experts say the part-time arrangement, which Messer primarily does from home in suburban Washington, doesn't appear to break any rules. But it could create problems for her husband, Republican Rep. Luke Messer, who was elected in 2012 on a pledge to "stop the reckless spending" and is preparing to challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly next year.
Mark GiaQuinta, a prominent Indiana tax litigator who has extensive experience with municipal issues, said it's difficult to know if Fishers taxpayers are getting a good deal. He says the city should ask an outside party to review Messer's work and release it publicly.
"I think most lawyers you talk to would find it unusual. How many individuals would hire a lawyer in a different state and pay them on a $20,000-a-month retainer?" said GiaQuinta, a one-time Fort Wayne Democratic city council member and long-serving president of the city's school district board. "The more prominent the political connection, the more transparent the arrangement needs to be and the more you need to justify it by a periodic independent audit."
Fishers conducts its own review of contracts, including Messer's, which are submitted to a three-member board that includes the mayor and two mayoral appointees for approval, according to city spokeswoman Ashley Elrod and the city's website.
Messer, who says she often works on weekends and during vacation, is paid much more than the city's two staff attorneys. Messer said last month that she has one additional client but declined to offer additional details, including how much work that entails.
Fishers, a city of about 85,000 people, released her timesheets after the AP first reported on her contract last month. A complete accounting of her hourly work was sought before publishing that story, but just two months of records were initially released.
Administrators in other large Indiana cities say they try to avoid arrangements like Messer's.
Officials in Fort Wayne and South Bend, which rank second and fourth respectively among Indiana cities in population, say much of their economic development work — Messer's specialty — is handled in-house by their primary attorneys.
The same goes for Bloomington, which is similar in size to Fishers. Mary Catherine Carmichael, the city's spokeswoman, said Bloomington could hire between two and three attorneys, including benefits, for the same amount Fishers pays Messer each year. The average salary and benefits package for the city's seven full-time lawyers is about $105,000 a year, she said.
Indianapolis, the state's largest city, does not currently have any attorneys under contract that make a flat monthly fee of $20,000 or more, officials said.
In Evansville, the state's third-largest city, a firm works under contract to handle most of the city's legal work, including economic development. Records show the firm was paid about $478,000 in 2016 after a team of 20 lawyers put in a total of 3,094 hours of work — an average of about 60 hours a week.
The Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, one of the wealthiest communities in the U.S., recently entered into a similar $20,000-a month-agreement as Fishers has with Messer. But under its contract, a 10-person consulting team based in Oklahoma is helping lure a hotel for the city. The contract requires the consultant to oversee the hotel's design while also getting it the proper permits, staff and vendors.
GiaQuinta, the tax litigator, said Fort Wayne schools paid a longtime attorney a similar amount as Messer while he was board president, but that attorney was required to be in the building four days a week. And when he retired, the school board specifically sought to hire a new attorney whose pay was less than half of that, he said.
Messer's yearly take-home pay almost equals the combined total Fishers, estimated to be Indiana's sixth-largest city, paid to three other private firms in 2016.
Mayor Scott Fadness says the city is getting good value because Messer "authored or negotiated 35 major economic development agreements, not to include the dozens of agreements that never came to fruition."
While Fadness insists the contract has helped save the city money, it recently hired a new staff attorney. Along with the amount paid to other firms that provide basic legal services, the city is on track to spend about $500,000 this year. When Messer was part of a firm that handled most of the city's legal work until 2014, the city spent an average of $400,640 per year for those services.
"I work diligently for Fishers and have never, in eight years, taken my job for granted," she said in an opinion article published last month in the Indianapolis Star in response to the AP's previous reporting about her contract. "My job is a privilege — not just because I love the economic development work that I do, but because I work with a group of rock-stars."
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