IN THE NEWS: Congressman Messer’s family has sweetheart deal with Fishers worth $20,000 monthly despite Virginia residency

INDIANAPOLIS – The city of Fishers pays Congressman Messer’s family an eyebrow-raising $240,000 a year for his wife’s part-time work even as she lives out of state, the AP reported today.

In a murky deal, the Indianapolis suburb has paid Congressman Messer’s wife, Jennifer Messer, a retainer of $20,000 a month since 2015 for indeterminate “economic development” legal work. The independent contractor role pays her roughly $100,000 more annually than the city’s lead staff attorney.

While the monthly retainer has left Hoosiers “flabbergasted,” the position doesn’t appear to be particularly laborious. Fishers refused to hand over a complete history of billable hours to The AP, but Messer only worked part-time in the two months of billing documents that The AP was able to find. Additionally, records show that Messer hasn’t been present at a meeting in Fishers since 2015. Instead, she “secured the contract despite living out of state in McLean, Virginia,” a Washington, D.C. suburb.

From the AP: City pays Indiana congressman’s wife $20K/month

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A burgeoning Indianapolis suburb has paid the wife of an influential congressman $580,000 since 2015 for legal consulting she largely does from the Washington area, an unusually large sum even in a state rife with highly paid government contractors, according to a review by The Associated Press.

Jennifer Messer, the wife of Republican Rep. Luke Messer, makes $20,000 a month working as a contract attorney for Fishers, according to the AP’s review of public documents. That’s drastically more than either of the city’s two staff attorneys are paid — or many other government lawyers in Indiana.

Legal experts say the agreement, which pays about $240,000 a year, doesn’t appear to break any rules because state law allows considerable leeway for governments to enter into professional service contracts. But it could create an awkward situation for her husband, who was elected to Congress in 2012 on a pledge to “stop the reckless spending” and has plans to challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly next year.

Meanwhile, many of Fishers’ daily legal needs are handled by salaried lawyers, or other local law firms. That leaves a limited work portfolio for Messer, a 2001 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law, who is free to take on additional clients and whose contractual duties to the city include “providing legal advice and services” with an emphasis on economic development.

But not everyone is convinced Fishers’ taxpayers are getting a good deal.

“I’m flabbergasted,” said Indiana University public affairs Professor Paul Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne who also is a lawyer. “What does she do each month that can’t be done by the other folks on staff — particularly when she’s not there? Even if she were the only lawyer for a city, that would still be an extraordinary amount of money.”

Messer has worked for Fishers since 2010, primarily through a firm that handled the town’s legal needs over three decades. But after a major restructuring in 2015, the city created its own legal department and the firm lost out.

Messer, however, did not and secured the contract despite living out of state in McLean, Virginia, records show.

Before moving away when her husband took office in 2013, Jennifer Messer regularly staffed Fishers meetings, attended planning groups and sat in on closed-door executive sessions, where sensitive legal matters are often discussed. But after her husband’s election, Messer’s attendance dropped sharply and she hasn’t been present at a meeting since 2015, records show.

She now lists her mother-in-law’s Greensburg, Indiana home as her in-state business address — the same address where her husband is registered to vote, after the family sold their home in nearby Shelbyville.

In a recent podcast with a local resident, Fishers’ lead staff attorney Chris Greisl described Messer’s role as supplementary to the legal department’s day-to-day work.

“I just get pulled in so many different directions,” said Greisl, who makes about $100,000 less a year than Messer. “I don’t have the time to dedicate and to be in every single place at once.”

Messer says her pay is commensurate with her level of experience and says she regularly submits detailed statements of the work she performs so the city can track her productivity.

Records furnished by the city which document her billable hours in April 2016 and April 2017 indicate she did not work full-time either of those months. The city did not provide a complete accounting of Messer’s billable hours, as requested by The AP.

Through her contract, Messer earns more than Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s top attorneys, who generally make between $100,000 and $150,000 a year, records show. Her pay also surpasses the head attorney for the city of Indianapolis, who tops out at $118,999 a year, according to figures provided by the city.

“It sure seems to me like it’s a sweetheart deal for the Messers, but the taxpayers in Fishers are being short changed,” said Julia Vaughan of the left-leaning government watchdog group Common Cause Indiana.

###