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The Utah Legislature is re-evaluating the $912,000 it has paid to lawyers and other outside consultants after an advocacy group pointed out some expenditures such as first-class air travel and stays at high-end hotels appear to fall outside the scope and restrictions outlined in their contracts.
The contracts are part of lawmakers' outsourced efforts to force the federal government to relinquish title to 31 million acres of public land in Utah. A team of legal experts provided a 140-page analysis telling lawmakers they had a good case.
But invoices submitted by the Davillier Law Group and its lead associate on the Utah project, John Howard, of San Diego, were littered with inaccuracies, irregularities and reimbursements for prohibited pricey accommodations, Campaign for Accountability (CfA) alleged in a letter Wednesday to the Legislature's Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands.
Commission co-chairman Rep. Keven Stratton acknowledged the lawyers' invoices contained problems and said an intensive internal review of the billings is underway to determine whether they reflect the terms of the contracts.
"There are some errors in the billing and the payments that will be corrected as we move forward. I would have hoped we would have found them earlier. We anticipate completing our internal review within 30 days," said Stratton, R-Orem. "We are seeking to be completely transparent, and we appreciate the input from Campaign for Accountability."
The commission will seek reimbursement or reduction in future bills to ensure the state does not pay prohibited expenses, he said.
"We will require billing adjustments where warranted and will continue to carefully review and monitor future invoices," Stratton said in a prepared statement with co-chairman Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville.
Invoices indicate one lawyer spent $3,100 at two of Salt Lake City's finest hotels, including a weekend stay at the Alta Club when he had no meetings scheduled. They also indicate lawyers billed for nonlegal services at a higher legal-services rate and billed for work that appeared to be lobbying, CfA alleged.
Stratton says the commission had to retain top lawyers and is getting a good deal from Davillier and its associates. Lawmakers had budgeted $2 million for this initial phase of the legal effort and anticipate spending half that.
"Davillier and Strata [Policy, a Logan-based consultant contracted to do public relations work] have worked at a significant discount, as well as performed work without billing. They have also indicated a willingness to reimburse wherever appropriate," the statement said.
Stratton and Hinkins described CfA's letter as "politically motivated" to advance the group's agenda to block the transfer of public lands to the states. Utah is at the center of the land-transfer movement, which interest groups across the political spectrum are fighting.
"Questions raised in the media [Wednesday] shouldn't diminish efforts to investigate the legal feasibility of Utah's work to manage public lands at a local level, which a majority of Utahns support," the statement said. "We are pleased with the accomplishments of the commission thus far."
The lawmakers defended the commission's process for reviewing bills and chided CfA for presuming it could more objectively evaluate the billings than the panel itself.
"In any contractual relationship, the parties to the contract are in the best position to determine whether they are receiving what each side promised," Stratton and Hinkins said in their statement. "As commission chairs, we are satisfied with the overall services and the progress Davillier and Strata have made."
The federal government may lack a legal basis for retaining so much land in Western states, concluded Davillier's report, released last December. It 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 already have set aside $4.5 million for this purpose, although a final decision on whether to sue rests with the state's executive branch.
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713.