The Madison County VAC’s attorney was paid and no one was charged with contempt on Friday, as a Clinton County judge brought in for the controversial Lavite case ruled partly for the county and partly for the Veterans Assistance Commission.
County officials, including outgoing County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan, were ordered appear in court Friday to prove that they were not in contempt of court by declining to pay the attorney representing the Veterans Assistance Commission in the matter of Bradley Lavite. County officials had insisted the VAC was out of money; the VAC board insisted it should be allowed to tap extra funds saved up over previous years to pay its bills, including the attorney it hired to sue the county.
Lavite, who is the superintendent of the VAC, is currently barred from entering the Madison County Administration Building to access his office. In March 2015, Lavite had a mental breakdown that his doctors attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder relating to his combat service. He was subsequently declared fit to return to work without restrictions by the PTSD specialist at the St. Louis Veterans Administration Medical Center. But the psychologist employed by the county disagreed, and the county then barred Lavite from entering the County Building.
The VAC sued the county, asking the court to compel them to allow Lavite to return to his office. The lawsuit was originally dismissed, but was reinstated recently by the 5th District Appellate Court and sent back to Madison County court.
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Specifically, one of the counts in the appeal involved nonpayment of fees for the VAC’s attorney, Thomas Burkart, who has represented Lavite and the VAC since the beginning of Lavite’s suit. According to the pleading, the VAC requested approximately $60,366 in legal bills to be paid from its budget, but the county had not issued the funds.
Burkart had filed a motion that the county must now show just cause why it should not be held in contempt of court for not paying the bill.
Judge Bill Becker of Clinton County was assigned to hear the case from outside the Madison County circuit. Becker met privately with the attorneys prior to appearing in open court.
Lavite testified that there is sufficient funds to cover administrative expenses, including Burkart’s legal fees, if transfers were made from other funds. He said given their anticipated level of requests, the VAC will have sufficient funds to cover their assistance programs through the end of the month while still paying Burkart’s bills.
The VAC had requested to access auxiliary funds of more than $800,000 that had accumulated over the years, but Becker said he believes that an additional appropriation would have to be approved by the County Board to allow them to access auxiliary funds.
“It’s my position that the VAC does not have the authority to spend that extra money without permission of the County Board,” Becker said. That issue can be appealed to a higher court if they wish, he said.
Becker said the county officials are not in contempt as long as they pay all the funds available in the administrative fund to Burkart, which he said the county has assured will happen.
Burkart said he respectfully disagrees with the court’s ruling, believing that the funds are up to the VAC to dispense as they see fit without the county’s oversight and that he believes that’s what the appeals court’s prior ruling meant. He said he has not decided yet whether to appeal Becker’s ruling on that issue.
Becker also said he would deny Burkart’s request for an injunction ordering the county not to interfere with the VAC.
“I came here to decide legal issues, not how the Veterans Assistance Commission is run,” Becker said.
And that is really the key part of the suit, according to Burkart: to sort out exactly how the funding and operations of the VAC are supposed to run. The VAC is an independent agency. Under state law, the county is required to provide the VAC with an office and appropriations for its budget, but does not manage its functions as an independent agency. The extent of that independence and of the county’s responsibility for oversight is the real issue, Burkart said.
County attorney John Gilbert said they interpret the judge’s ruling that they cannot address the reasonableness of the fees being paid by the VAC except through the appropriations, but that VAC cannot have unfettered access to funds beyond the annual appropriation or additional appropriations as determined by the County Board.
County administrator Joe Parente later said that legal bills will have consumed 38 percent of the VAC’s budget for this year. “This is the issue the (County Board) finance c ommittee had,” he said. “They directed a question to the VAC about overspending their budget, and Mr. Burkhart filed a lawsuit against the county for questioning their authority.”
Burkart said he believes it was a win for the VAC that the judge said the VAC savings cannot be used for any other purpose, though he disagrees that they need county permission to access those funds.
“We didn’t get everything, but it was substantial to me that he required county officials to show up, and they did in fact show up,” Burkart said. “The system of justice works, and no one is above the law.”
Burkart requested that Becker extend previous orders permitting Lavite to be present in the courthouse for matters relating to this case. The primary issue — whether Lavite will be permitted into the administration building — is still pending.
Becker implied that this case may be hung up on personal disagreements and politics rather than the law. “If I have to come down here on that kind of stuff, I’m going to come down hard on whoever’s being a jerk, in plain English,” Becker said.
The Lavite controversy became an issue in the recent chairman’s race, with incumbent Chairman Alan Dunstan standing by the administrative decision to forbid Lavite access to the building. But challenger Kurt Prenzler said he believed Lavite should be permitted to return to his office. Prenzler narrowly defeated Dunstan in last week’s election and will be sworn in next month.