Auckland Council has racked up a $207,133 legal bill defending a defamation case brought by activist Penny Bright.
The bill included hiring a senior litigation lawyer, Willie Akel, to defend council chief executive Stephen Town in defamation proceedings brought by Bright over comments he made relating to her unpaid rates.
Bright has racked up $89,477 in unpaid rates and penalties dating back to 2007, leading the council to ask the High Court in January this year to sell her Kingsland house to recoup the money.
He has got a bottomless pit of public money to call on to stop me having my day in court
The court proceedings in the defamation case dragged on for two-and-a-half years before the claim was dismissed by the High Court in February last year.
Bright lodged defamation proceedings in response to comments in a council press release made by Town.
In a response to a request from Bright under the Official Information Act about the amount spent on the defamation proceedings, the council said the legal costs arose out of the need for Town to defend himself against serious allegations, including an allegation that he was improperly motivated against Bright.
"Defamation is a specialised area of the law, and council was required to appoint expert external legal support to defend Mr Town," the response said.
Bright said the $207,133 legal bill was a disgraceful waste of public money after she had made an offer to drop the defamation case if Town apologised, retracted the statement and paid $10,000, later raised to $20,000.
"He has got a bottomless pit of public money to call on to stop me having my day in court," said Bright, who acknowledged she did not win her case in court.
Auckland Council's general counsel James Hassall said the council was put in a position where it had no choice but to defend the claims.
"As we have previously explained, defamation is a specialist area of law, which is why Simpson Grierson, of which Mr Akel is a partner, was instructed to act on our behalf," he said.
"While the cost of this case is high, a large amount of work went into it over a two and a half year period – this included two hearings in the High Court before the proceedings were ultimately dismissed."
The council had decided not to pursue Bright for costs although it remained an option, he said.
Bright, an activist and self-proclaimed "anti-corruption whistleblower", said she wanted her unpaid rates to be fixed and would repay what she owed if the council became transparent and opened its books, especially for private contracts.
For years, Bright has been campaigning for full transparency of council contracts, including council contracts to show a unique contract number, the name of the contract, the scope of the contract, the contract finish date, the exact value of each and every contract and how the contract was tendered.
"Once the books are open I will make arrangements to pay my rates," said Bright, whose house has a council valuation of $1.04 million.
The Herald has sought comment from Town and Mayor Phil Goff about the size of the legal bill.