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Freebery seeking $3.7 million in legal fees from county

By Jesse Chadderdon
Staff Reporter 

Thursday, March 7, 2008

Sherry Freebery is petitioning New Castle County to reimburse her for $3.7 million in legal fees – the cost of her five-year fight against federal fraud and corruption charges. 

The county council received hundreds of pages of documents last week, including an eight page itemized accounting of legal services the former chief administrative officer retained between December 2002 and November 2007 last week. 

County law requires the council to vote on whether to reimburse Freebery. County code calls for the reimbursement of legal fees for county employees who are charged with crimes that may be linked to their role as a county employee. 

“Ms. Freebery fought a five-year legal battle that she never would have had to fight but for her hard work for the good of New Castle County,” attorney Elizabeth Taylor wrote in a letter to the county. “She cannot be made whole for the personal damage that has been caused by the government attack. She is at least entitled to be reimbursed for the cost of her legal fees.” 

The council will hire an outside attorney that has 120 days to review the case and make a recommendation to the council as to whether a reimbursement is in order. That recommendation is non-binding, however, and the council will then have to vote on the issue. 

“We have rules that are currently in place and the responsibility falls to us to fairly evaluate everything,” said Councilman George Smiley (D-New Castle), who heads the council’s Finance Committee. “That’s why we have legal counsel researching this. There are certain circumstances where reimbursement may be appropriate and it remains to be seen whether this is one of them.”

The potential payout to Freebery could be an unforeseen burden on the county’s finances. With real estate revenues on the decline and personnel costs on the rise, the county is currently operating at a deficit, meaning the remaining reserves are being used to help cover the difference. Those reserves are currently slated to run out in 2012.

“Any settlement of that size would have a significant impact on the reserves of New Castle County, which we use every fiscal year to offset the need for property tax increases,” Smiley said.

County Executive Chris Coons declined to comment.

In a federal indictment, Freebery had been accused manipulating county employees into doing work outside the purview of their normal responsibilities, such as running phone banks during the 2000 election and handing out campaign literature for council candidates the administration favored. It further charged that Freebery had them do personal favors for her – all on county time. Additional charges of mortgage fraud were also included.

Freebery pleaded guilty to a single felony charge of mortgage fraud in June and in exchange, prosecutors dropped all other charges. She was forced to pay a $350 fine and was placed on probation.

In her letter, Taylor argues the mortgage fraud charge had nothing to do with her role as a county official, citing comments made by the presiding Judge John Fullam that there was no evidence presented of any wrongdoing pertaining to the mortgage fraud while in office.

Taylor also argues that Councilman Penrose Hollins (D-Wilmington South) and Councilman Robert Weiner (R-Chatham) should recuse themselves from the vote on Freebery’s request because of previous public statements they have made against her.

Weiner said he would not recuse himself, though he acknowledged speaking out against Freebery and former County Executive Tom Gordon. 

“I feel I’m able to objectively analyze the evidence and apply the law,” he said. “I will not recuse myself. To do so would be to disenfranchise the voters in my district.”

Hollins could not be reached for comment.

Janet Smith, Freebery’s top aide who was also named in the indictment, is also seeking reimbursement for $25,051 that she incurred in legal fees. Smith pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for witness tampering in order to avoid trial.

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