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    Plymouth DA spent millions on private lawyers when attorney general would have handled case for free

    Plymouth Country District Attorney Timothy Cruz.
    Marc Vasconcellos-Pool/file
    Plymouth Country District Attorney Timothy Cruz.

    Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz spent an eye-popping $2.4 million on legal fees to fight a federal lawsuit by a former prosecutor who claimed he was wrongfully fired, even though the attorney general’s office offered to represent Cruz and his office for free.

    Instead of using government attorneys, Cruz decided to hire Mintz Levin, one of Boston’s largest and best-known law firms, to handle the case. But the bill wound up costing taxpayers nearly 10 times the amount of the settlement with the worker and at least nine times what some attorneys say is the typical cost for that type of litigation.

    “We are shocked that the DA’s office agreed to pay these exorbitant fees to private counsel,” said Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey’s office.

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    Healey’s office said it was not aware of any other cases where a state agency ran up such a sizable legal bill after refusing the attorney general’s services.

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    John E. Bradley Jr., a former homicide prosecutor in Cruz’s office, filed the federal lawsuit in 2013, claiming he was wrongly fired in 2012 for refusing to contribute to Cruz’s reelection campaign and objecting to the way Cruz handled confidential informants. Cruz’s office denied the allegations, but agreed to settle the case in October for $248,000, including $98,000 for Bradley’s legal fees. Bradley will also get a boost to his pension by being retroactively reinstated to his old position for 19 months.

    But the total cost to taxpayers of the lawsuit was much, much higher once the district attorney’s legal fees were factored in. In response to a public records request, Cruz’s office told the Globe that Mintz Levin billed the state $2,415,194 to represent the district attorney’s office as well as Cruz and two other employees.

    A Cruz spokeswoman insisted the legal bill was justified based on the sheer volume of legal proceedings.

    “The volume of work performed by Mintz Levin over four years representing DA Cruz, two employees and the Office of the District Attorney was significant,” said Beth Stone, a spokeswoman for Cruz’s office, in a written statement. “There were two attempts at mediation, and many depositions, dispositive motions, and numerous other pleadings over the life of the case.”

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    But even given all the work involved, some lawyers suggested the $2.4 million bill seemed extraordinarily high.

    Two employment attorneys, Margaret H. Paget of Waltham and Jon Hyman of Cleveland, said that such suits typically cost between $100,000 and $250,000 to take all the way through a trial. And Bradley and Cruz settled their dispute months before trial, where legal fees can mount quickly.

    Robert S. Sinsheimer, the lawyer who represented Bradley, was paid on a contingency, collecting a portion of Bradley’s settlement. But had Sinsheimer charged his full hourly fee, the total would have amounted to $264,000, according to invoices shared with the Globe. Sinsheimer said he imagined the defense counsel put in a similar amount of work on the case, so could be expected to charge a similar amount.

    “I find it impossible to believe that the defense of this matter cost $2.4 million,” said Sinsheimer, a Boston civil rights lawyer. However, he cautioned he hadn’t seen Mintz Levin’s actual invoices and didn’t know the firm’s hourly rates.

    Mintz Levin did not return phone calls and e-mail seeking comment. And Cruz’s office declined to say how much Mintz Levin charged the office per hour.

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    Bradley, who had a bitter falling out with Cruz, speculated that the Plymouth district attorney’s office hired Mintz Levin, a legal powerhouse with 500 attorneys, to do everything it could to win. He called it a “David versus Goliath” battle.

    Though the Plymouth district attorney’s office said Bradley initially demanded $1.5 million, Bradley said he likely would have been willing to settle for roughly the same amount he eventually did — around a quarter of a million dollars.

    “What did they accomplish by dragging it out?” Bradley asked. “They cost the taxpayers more than $2 million and accomplished nothing.”

    Typically, Massachusetts agencies rely on the attorney general’s office to handle employment suits, rather than hiring private firms.

    But Stone, the spokeswoman for Cruz’s office, said it decided to use an outside firm in this case “due to a conflict.” She suggested the AG’s office could potentially prosecute people in Cruz’s office if it believed Bradley’s allegations had merit. In addition, Bradley later took a job with another government agency, the Worcester District attorney, which Stone said created an additional conflict because the attorney general’s office could potentially represent both at the same time.

    But the AG’s office said it found no such conflict. Instead, the office said it initially approved the Plymouth district attorney’s request to hire Mintz Levin because Cruz and the three other defendants made it clear they did not wish to be represented by the attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office said it did not review Mintz Levin’s fee arrangement, but told Cruz’s lawyer in a 2014 e-mail that Cruz and other defendants would bear the cost of the litigation.

    Ultimately, the AG’s office said it decided to take over representation of the district attorney’s office last summer and helped negotiate the settlement, because of concerns with how Mintz Levin was handling the case. The office declined to detail those concerns. The AG’s office also revised its guidelines to make it clear that it has the authority to review legal bills in future cases.

    The DA’s office said it paid $40,000 of Mintz Levin’s bill from its own budget, while the rest of the $2.4 million came from a state fund normally used to pay settlements and judgments. State Comptroller Thomas Shack, whose office controls the fund, said departments are generally permitted to use the fund to pay their legal fees as long as the attorney general’s office approves a request to hire outside legal counsel. But Shack said his office will look into the case further.

    The Plymouth district attorney’s office also said Cruz “voluntarily” paid a portion of the legal bills for his individual representation, in addition to the amount billed the state. Cruz’s campaign paid Mintz Levin more than $66,000 in 2014 and 2015, campaign records show. State campaign finance law permits officials to use their campaigns for certain legal expenses.

    The DA’s office selected Mintz Levin because of its expertise in litigating labor and employment issues, said Stone, the office spokeswoman. She said Cruz did not have any prior relationship with the main Mintz Levin attorney who handled the case, Bret Cohen, though campaign records show that other Mintz Levin attorneys have donated about $5,000 to Cruz over the past decade.

    Cruz, a Republican, was originally appointed to the office by Governor Jane Swift in November 2001 to succeed former district attorney Michael Sullivan, who became the United States attorney. He has since won several elections to keep the seat, winning 67 percent of the vote in the general election in 2010. He ran unopposed in 2014.

    Cruz is expected to run for reelection in 2018, but it is not clear whether he will face any opposition. It is still too early for candidates to begin collecting signatures to appear on the ballot.

    Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.