BRIDGEPORT — The city is paying the law firm of Pullman and Comley nearly $1.1 million for successfully defending a federal discrimination lawsuit filed by disgruntled firefighters.

The $1,060,130 in legal costs represents the highest legal fee paid by the city in recent memory.

"They tried to make this a class-action suit," said City Attorney Mark Anastasi, who hired Pullman and Comley to handle the far-reaching legal action.

"They were looking for serious relief. We took this very seriously," he said.

The city attempted to force the plaintiffs to pay Pullman and Comley's fees, but a federal judge rejected that request, city records show.

Pullman and Comley members are well connected with city government, and the firm has served as the city's bond counsel for years. After Mayor John M. Fabrizi took office two years ago, the city decided to seek bids for the bond counsel position, and Pullman and Comley won the first competitive round for the job.

John Stafstrom, a long-time member of the law firm, serves as the bond counsel. Stafstrom is also the chairman of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee.

City records show Pullman and Comley was paid $369,303 in 2004 for work unrelated to the firefighter lawsuit. The city paid the firm $262,481 in 2003, $247,892 in 2002 and $168,298 in 2001.

The city did not seek bids when it hired Pullman and Comley as outside counsel for the firefighter suit. Joseph P. Ganim, now serving prison time on federal corruption charges, was mayor at the time.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court on March 21, 2001, by city firefighters Johanna Georgia and Elizabeth Shiller. The two women claimed they were victims of ongoing discrimination and forced to endure a hostile work environment and co-worker harassment.

The suit sought nearly $1 million in monetary damages for the plaintiffs. It also sought appointment of a special master to oversee discrimination complaints at the Fire Department. A similar special master has been ruling on discrimination cases at the Police Department for nearly three decades.

A jury ruled against the women firefighters and the case ended last December.

Anastasi said Pullman and Comley's fee represents over four years of work. "It's serious money, but it appears to be well spent."

City Council member Robert Walsh, D-132, agreed the lawsuit had to be defended, but questioned how Pullman and Comley was hired.

"It's a big number, but there are never any bids for outside council," he said.

Anastasi said the city is now developing a list — based on pre-set fees — of firms willing to serve as outside counsel.

"This would be a list of standby attorneys with areas of expertise so we have pre-set arrangements," he said.

Anastasi said Pullman and Comley was selected because its Stamford office has expertise in labor law. "This case should have been a lot less complex and expensive. Under federal law, if the plaintiff wins, they get their legal fees. But we don't as defendants," Anastasi said.

Bill Cummings, who covers regional issues, can be reached at 330-6230.