A Legalpalooza Only Dickens Could Love

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You can't go home again. After two federal criminal trials charging him with looting Westar Energy, David Wittig has become all too familiar with that aphorism in his six-year legal odyssey.

But if you do go home again, it seems, you should first reacquaint yourself with local legal rates, which are likely to be far less than the high prices charged on the East Coast.

That seems to be the message of he most recent legal sideshow in the Westar case, sometimes dubbed the Enron of Kansas.

First, some background: In 2002, Federal prosecutors accused Wittig and another Westar executive, Douglas Lake, of wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering, and circumventing of internal controls in the process of "looting" Westar, an electrical utility in Topeka, Kansas.

Their first trial, in 2004, ended in a hung jury. In September 2005, the jury at their second trial convicted the men of multiple counts, but an appeals court overturned the verdicts in 2007. It also threw out many charges, saying prosecutors had failed to prove the men violated any federal regulations. Their third trial is scheduled to start on September 9.

Who has been paying Wittig's and Lake's multimillion-dollar legal bills while they have stymied their former employer all these years? Why, Westar itself. Under the company's bylaws, Wittig and Lake, as former officers, are entitled to payment of reasonable legal defense costs, at least until they are convicted of criminal wrongdoing.

Not surprisingly, Westar is getting tired of writing the checks. And so it has challenged how much it is on the hook to pay. Specifically, does "reasonable" defense costs mean reasonable for Kansas City, where Westar is based? Or reasonable for New York and Washington, D.C., where Wittig and Lake found lawyers they like?

Since 2005, Westar has fought payment of lawyers for both Wittig and Lake, suing them in separate lawsuits, claiming outrage over the high prices charged by lawyers from the East Coast — and, so far, failing miserably in each of these cases.

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