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Lawyers and other consultants promoting Utah's bid to take control of public lands have billed the state for luxury travel as well as for work that appears outside the scope of their contracts, according to a review of invoices posted on the Utah Legislature's website. One lawyer spent $3,100 at Salt Lake City's finest hotels and regularly flew first class, courtesy of Utah taxpayers.
The Legislature's Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands last year hired the New Orleans law firm Davillier Law Group to assemble an analysis and build a legal case for land transfer, and hired Logan-based think tank Strata Policy to develop advocacy materials. But their invoices suggest taxpayers are getting stuck with inappropriate bills, according to a Washington, D.C. based watchdog group.
Campaign for Accountability (CfA) sent a letter to commission co-chairs Rep. Keven Stratton and Sen. David Hinkins on Wednesday, arguing they are shirking their fiduciary duty to be wise stewards of taxpayer dollars. The letter calls on the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel to immediately audit all expenditures associated with the land-transfer contracts, which expressly prohibit reimbursements for alcohol, tobacco and luxury items, as well as for lobbying.
Documents do not reveal whether the Legislature has paid for the expenditures, although Stratton previously acknowledged it has paid $900,000 to Davillier lawyers and other contractors. Stratton did not respond to a voice mail message Tuesday.
The CfA's critique focuses heavily on billings submitted by San Diego attorney John W. Howard, whose billings include expensive travel, hotel stays and meals and his time spent with federal lawmakers involved with the Utah Public Lands Initiative.
"The taxpayers of Utah have likely footed the bill for things like luxurious accommodations at a private club, first-class airline tickets, and expensive meals that went well beyond what is 'reasonable and necessary,'" wrote CfA Executive Director Anne Weismann. "While we have highlighted only the most egregious examples here, there are many more instances of problematic billing practices evident in the publicly available invoices on the Commission's website. .... You are allowing the appropriated funds to be turned into a slush fund apparently available to any and all supporting the cause of usurping federal control over federal public lands."
An office assistant said Howard needed the commission's approval before he could address a query from a Salt Lake Tribune reporter.
The CfA letter also was also addressed to Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, which is charged with overseeing the contracts. Director Michael Christensen did not return a call for comment.
Lawmakers last year appropriated $2 million for the legal analysis and related work promoting land transfer. Davillier's report released last December concluded the federal government may lack a legal basis for retaining so much land in Western states and recommended filing a special suit, known as a petition for original jurisdiction, before the U.S. Supreme Court. The legal team led by Davillier's George Wentz estimated the cost of the suit at $14 million.
Lawmakers have already set aside $4.5 million for this purpose, although a final decision on whether to sue rests with the state's executive branch.
The state also retained the services of Salt Lake City lobbying firm Foxley & Pignanelli, pollster Y2 Analytics and Nuffer Smith Public Relations of San Francisco. Weismann contends these firms' billings, along with Strata's and the lawyers' filings, do not include the documentation required by their contracts.
Utah lawmakers and agencies have shelled out millions to outside consultants to carry on various disputes with the federal government. The single-largest recipient of this spending is likely Ryan Benson, an anti-predator activist who has secured Legislature-approved contracts worth more than $5 million to campaign for removing the wolf from federal endangered species protection and for delaying a listing decision for greater sage grouse.
After the feds declined to list sage grouse last September, the state adjusted its contract with Benson's outfit, known as Big Game Forever, and he is now campaigning to overturn federal land-use plan revisions that supported the decision not to list the bird. Benson's quarterly reports to the Legislature, meanwhile, provide no specific tallies about how he spends this taxpayer money.
An undisguised opponent of land transfer, CfA is the group that has twice filed ethics complaints against Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, stemming from his work to end federal control of public lands. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has cleared Ivory of the group's allegations that he defrauds the rural Western counties that he has persuaded to join American Lands Council, the Utah-based land transfer group Ivory founded and led until a few months ago. Reyes's office is looking into CfA's follow-up complaint that Ivory conducted ALC business using the Legislature's resources, according to the CfA.
The group's latest complaint again alleges Utah lawmakers are giving land-transfer proponents too much latitude with taxpayer resources. CfA's letter alleges the outside lawyers overbilled the state in some situations.
"As the contracts make clear, legal work is to be billed at different, higher rates than relations work [such as media interactions and meetings with advocacy professionals]. The invoices contain multiple instances, however, where lawyers performed relations work, yet billed at the legal services rates. This resulted in the overpayment of thousands of dollars," Weismann wrote.
According to the invoices, for example, Howard and Wentz billed their $500-an-hour legal rate for an August 2015 meeting with lobbyists Doug Foxley and Frank Pinganelli. Howard billed the legal hourly rate for coordinating an interview for a Heritage Foundation video, and Wentz' time with Wall Street Journal reporters was also billed at $500. A third lawyer, Richard Rotunda, billed nearly $4,000 for his appearance in the video.
Howard billed the commission $4,800 for first-class flights, $1,500 for a three-day stay at Grand America last August and another $1,600 at the Alta Club for two other Salt Lake City stays.
"During his first stay at the Alta Club in November 2015, Mr. Howard checked into the club on Saturday, November 7, but did not list any meetings on his invoice until the next Tuesday, November 10. This at least suggests Mr. Howard billed the Commission (and ultimately Utah taxpayers) for lodging for two unnecessary weekend nights," Weismann wrote.
Other meals include $175 for a dinner at the Garden Cafe, $90 at Christopher's and $69 for a lunch, including a $21 bar tab.
"Because Mr. Howard did not submit itemized receipts for these high-priced meals, it is unclear whether this was the only instance where Mr. Howard violated the contractual provision prohibiting billing for alcohol," Weismann wrote.