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Utah taxpayers paid lawyers, a polling firm, a research group and lobbyists nearly $640,000 to prepare a legal analysis on a potential lawsuit seeking state ownership of federal lands, invoices show.
Now Democrats are demanding to know more about the costs and want to see material regarding weaknesses in the case.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City who is a member of the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, which commissioned the legal research wants access to all of the information prepared by lawyers with the Davillier Law Group of New Orleans, including potential problems or challenges to the state's case.
But lawyers hired by the commission are refusing to provide Dabakis with the information he wants, contending they represent the chairmen of the commission not the entire commission and need permission before giving Dabakis the information he seeks, which is protected by the attorney-client privilege.
"We can't do that without authorization," attorney George Wentz told Dabakis and Rep. Joel Briscoe, the other Democratic member of the commission. "We can sit down with you and go over the strengths and weaknesses as soon as we're directed by the chairs."
Davillier was hired to prepare a legal analysis about whether Utah could win a case claiming ownership of tens of millions of acres of federal land within the state's borders.
The firm presented its analysis to the commission last month, but it released to the public only the arguments in favor of the potential lawsuit and acknowledged there were likely hurdles that would have to be overcome.
Dabakis contends that members of the commission should be entitled to all the information available, and that without that kind of access, he can't make an informed decision as to whether to support suing the federal government a lawsuit projected to cost $14 million.
"I'm on the damn committee. I'm a senator. Everyone who is involved in this process is a Republican, and they all want this lawsuit and I have a law firm … that's got $500,000 of taxpayer money to put together this report," a frustrated Dabakis argued. "This is a Chinese wall between the two Democrats [on the commission] and the $500,000 attorneys. … To deny us the information the chairs have got doesn't allow us to do our public responsibility."
The commission has five Republican members, including both chairmen, and just two Democrats.
Wentz said it would be foolish to release to the public information that would help the federal government defeat the state's lawsuit. Jim Jardine, a Salt Lake City attorney who is part of the legal team, identified two likely arguments against the lawsuit in a meeting with Republican House members last week that Congress has constitutional authority to manage property and that Utah "disclaimed" ownership of the land at statehood.
Dabakis and Briscoe are also questioning tens of thousands of dollars paid to two companies Y2 Analytics, a Provo-based polling outfit, and Foxley & Pignanelli, one of the Capitol's most connected lobbying firms.
Why, the senator wanted to know, was a polling firm paid nearly $34,000 to do work on what was supposed to be a legal analysis?
"They spent the money on aspects of coalition building, aspects of messaging to the public" and explaining why the commission is doing what it is doing, Wentz explained.
An executive for the firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Doug Foxley said Monday his firm was not hired to lobby for or against the litigation, but helped coordinate between the lawyers hired by the commission and "other interested parties." The invoices show they were paid $2,600 for the work.
Dabakis and Briscoe have been given invoices documenting $639,436 spent preparing the legal brief that after a discount of about $53,000.
Attorneys on the team were charging the commission up to $500 an hour for their work, and they billed thousands of dollars in travel and other expenses, including nearly $3,200 for a video with the Heritage Foundation.
The invoices show that taxpayers paid more than $68,000 to Strata Policy, a Logan-based think tank co-founded by Utah State University professor Randy Simmons.
Simmons and Ryan Yonk, a Strata CEO and USU professor, have written numerous articles about the failures of federal land policy.
Wentz said they were paid to produce data on failures of federal land ownership in Utah and areas where federal policies infringed on Utah sovereignty.
The commission voted in December to recommend proceeding with the lawsuit. Briscoe and Dabakis voted against the recommendation.
Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes, both Republicans, are reviewing the legal analysis and will ultimately be the ones to decide whether to proceed. Herbert has expressed concerns about the cost of such a lawsuit; Reyes said his office is reviewing the information.