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Private law firm charges Maryland $382K for unsuccessful defense of early end to unemployment benefits

Maryland taxpayers are on the hook for more than $382,000 to pay a private law firm for its unsuccessful defense of the state’s decision to end enhanced unemployment benefits early.

The Venable law firm has billed the state $382,649.06 from June 30 through Aug. 20, according to an invoice released by the Office of the Attorney General.

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Attorney General Brian Frosh hired Venable after he spoke out against Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to end the benefits, which are paid for with federal funds. Unemployed Marylanders sued to block Hogan’s decision, and after a flurry of legal activity over the Independence Day weekend, they were successful and the benefits continued.

The enhanced benefits included an extra $300 per week for all people on unemployment, expanded eligibility for contract, gig and self-employed workers not usually eligible for benefits and extended eligibility to the long-term unemployed who had exhausted their regular benefits.

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The programs were created — and funded — by the federal government to help people cope with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The federal programs expired at the start of this week, but Hogan and about two dozen other Republican governors sought to end them early.

Hogan, who wanted to cut off the benefits in early July, had argued that ending the enhanced benefits would help restaurants and other employers who have had trouble finding workers by forcing people back into the workforce.

Maryland’s state lawmakers considered whether they could intervene to overturn the governor but ultimately did not act, leaving the fate of the benefits in the hands of the court system.

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Judges at multiple levels of Maryland’s court system sided with the unemployed workers, eventually leading the Hogan administration to back off from its attempt to end the benefits early. But another segment of the lawsuit that seeks to help people owed back benefits remains active.

As of late August, nearly 108,000 Marylanders received benefits through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (extended eligibility) or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (self-employed and contract workers), according to the state Department of Labor. That number is down from about 227,000 Marylanders at the start of summer.

Nationwide, about 7.5 million people could lose their benefits this week as the federal program ends, according to an estimate from The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

The Venable invoice gives a glimpse into how a team of lawyers has worked on the fast-moving case. The invoice lists work done by lawyers ranging from as little as one-tenth of an hour (six minutes) for responding to an email to 12 hours for drafting filings and motions in the case.

Venable lawyers listed 12-hour workdays on the case 16 times, according to the invoice. All told, the lawyers billed 688.2 hours worth of work valued at $381,952.50.

They also billed the state for $696.56 worth of filing fees and other court costs.

A spokesman for Hogan said that Frosh’s office should pay the bill, given that Frosh recused himself from handling the case.

“His office negotiated and signed this contract, and we were not a party to it,” said Mike Ricci, a spokesman for the Republican governor. “He should foot the bill, and working with state budget officials, we will explore all costs to make that happen.”

A spokeswoman for Frosh, a Democrat, said the governor is the one who caused the state to run up private legal bills by trying to end the benefits early.

“We urged him to change course and he refused,” said the spokeswoman, Raquel Coombs. “Despite his efforts to deflect blame away from his decision, he is the reason the state incurred these expenses.”

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