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New Ottawa County board members award no-bid contract to law firm with ties to board chair

Judge's gavel with books on a desk
Pixabay.com
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Ottawa County commissioners approved a no-bid contract worth more than $580,000 at a meeting on Tuesday, despite some concerns from residents and commissioners over transparency and a potential conflict of interest.

It was the second meeting for the board, under a new majority that was elected with the support of Ottawa Impact PAC, a political committee formed in opposition to school mask mandates during the pandemic.

Two of the founders of the PAC are now the chair and vice chair of the board of commissioners. And nine of the commission’s 11 members were elected with the support of Ottawa Impact PAC.

Tuesday, they voted to approve a contract with the Kallman Legal Group to serve as corporate counsel for the county. The Lansing-based firm filed a number of lawsuits opposing emergency orders during the pandemic, and was active against Proposal 3, which legalized abortion services in Michigan.

"When you have the best, you have the best."

The two-year contract approved Tuesday would pay Kallman Legal Group $225 per hour for a minimum of 1,248 hours of work this year, and $240 per hour next year. Kallman is set to earn at least $580,320 over the course of the contract, and potentially more on litigation filed against the county, which it will be allowed to bill at a higher rate.

The contract came after board members moved to fire the county’s previous top legal advisor at their last meeting, without warning.

“No one else to my knowledge was involved in the decision-making process when it came to selecting this attorney.”
Rebekah Curran, Ottawa County Commissioner

And it came despite concerns from some commissioners and residents that the process lacked transparency, and didn’t include a typical request for proposal, which would have given other law firms an opportunity to bid for the contract.

“We typically go through an RFP process,” said commissioner Rebekah Curran, who was elected with the support of Ottawa Impact PAC, but who voted against the contract for Kallman Legal Group. “No one else to my knowledge was involved in the decision-making process when it came to selecting this attorney.”

But commissioner Sylvia Rhodea, who put forward the contract for a vote, argued against a motion from fellow commissioners that would have hired Kallman for only a short time frame, while it opened up a competitive bidding process to find other firms for the full two-year contract.

“It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to move this back into an open process,” Rhodea said. “When you have the best, you have the best.”

Kallman connections

Residents said they were also concerned about connections between Kallman Legal Group and Joe Moss, the current board chair and co-founder of Ottawa Impact PAC.

Moss’s business partner is Joel Kallman, who is the nephew of David Kallman, the head of Kallman Legal Group.

Joel Kallman also played a key role in Ottawa Impact PAC during the election that brought many of the current board members into power.

Campaign finance records show Ottawa Impact PAC raised more than $100,000 during the 2022 election, and more than $60,000 of the money it spent went to a company called For Liberty LLC for web hosting, bookkeeping and other services.

At least seven of the current board members elected with the support of Ottawa Impact PAC received web support from For Liberty LLC, with Ottawa Impact PAC funds.

State business records list Joel Kallman as the resident agent for For Liberty LLC. He’s also the agent for Roosted LLC, which received $1,800 from Ottawa Impact PAC for rent at its offices at 517 Baldwin St. in Jenison. That’s also the same address listed for For Liberty LLC and Freshphone.

On LinkedIn, Joel Kallman is listed as CEO of Freshphone, and Joe Moss, the new chair of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners is listed as its CFO.

Potential conflict of interest?

During Tuesday’s meeting as commissioners prepared to vote on the $580,320 contract awarded to Joel Kallman’s family members, commissioner Roger Bergman raised the issue of a possible conflict of interest.

“Mr. Chairman, I would like to ask if there’s any on the board who have a potential conflict of interest, that they abstain from voting,” Bergman said.

“Is there anyone on the board who has a potential conflict of interest?” Moss responded, looking around at the other commissioners.

Moss didn’t abstain. The contract with Kallman Legal Group was approved by a one-vote margin, with five commissioners voting against it.

“There was a clear, clear, clear conflict of interest,” said resident Oliver Shampine, during a public comment portion of the meeting after the vote. “So that’s just beyond disappointing.”

Reached by phone on Tuesday, David Kallman, the founder of Kallman Legal Group, confirmed to Michigan Radio that Joel Kallman is his nephew, but laughed at the idea that the contract presented a conflict for commissioner Joe Moss.

“That’s ridiculous,” David Kallman said. “That’s silly. There’s no conflict of interest there, that’s my comment.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.