JEERS to the surprise fees taken out of some payments from the Columbia Gas settlement, and CHEERS to the attorney behind those fees who last week had a change of heart.
It would be an understatement to say that 11,077 residential and business customers of Columbia Gas in the Merrimack Valley were anticipating their cut of the $143 million settlement. The money was meant to compensate for losses related to the September 2018 gas disaster, from damage to buildings and homes to the emotional and psychological tolls on those who lived through it.
Those payments were especially timely in light of a pandemic, soaring unemployment and a simmering recession. In fact, lawyers involved in the process sped up the first batch of checks due to the effects of COVID-19. The average payout in that round was about $8,000, as staff writer Jill Harmacinski has reported.
But for some 175 people, the checks were held up, and they stood to lose 11% right off the top.
The reason was money owed the attorney they hired soon after the disaster, David Raimondo. He’s a private lawyer not among those who worked on the class-action case and who were set to divide $26.1 million from the gas company’s payout for legal and administrative costs.
That's not a distinction that matters much to Raimondo's clients. After some hue and cry — and consultation with other lawyers, including Attorney General Maura Healey’s office — Raimondo told Harmacinski on Thursday he'd decided it best just to drop the fees and send people their checks. “This was in the best interest of the clients,” he said.
Indeed, it was. Well over half of those who filed claims against the Columbia Gas settlement, or 56%, live or work in Lawrence. Mayor Daniel Rivera said the goal has always been “to support the impacted families, not enriching lawyers.”
The $880 fee that Raimondo would’ve charged against the average settlement check of $8,000 represented about two and a half weeks worth of the per capita income in Lawrence — a charge that state Sen. Diana DiZoglio called “suspicious and exorbitant.” DiZoglio questioned whether everyone being assessed a fee had signed agreements to pay Raimondo's contingency and asked Healey to look into the matter.
It's good that she did. And while it's still not clear that Raimondo ever should have assessed those fees in the first place, the important thing is that he reversed course and did what was right in the end.