Lands of Luxury | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Lands of Luxury 

Utahns pay for lawyers to fly first-class and hole-up in the Alta Club.

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Good help doesn't come cheap.

This cliché is apt when analyzing Utah's ongoing efforts to capture about 31 million acres of public land from the federal government, and turn it over to state control.

In 2016, Utah lawmakers voted in favor of spending up to $14 million to sue for the lands, and they tossed about $2 million to a Louisiana law firm, and Strata Policy, a Logan-based think-tank, to begin chipping away at the bricks preventing Utah from controlling the public's land.

The long march toward ousting federal land managers, which has been met with scathing ridicule from environmental groups and myriad other conservation-minded folks, has resulted in some high-brow expenses from the $900- and $500-per-hour attorneys hired to represent the state.

Expense accounts from the Davillier Law Group, which were posted to the Legislature's website, show that during a four-month period in late 2015, Attorney John Howard flew first-class from San Diego to Salt Lake City four times, at a charge to taxpayers of $2,782.

While in Salt Lake, Howard took a tour of the local hotel scene, staying at the Grand America for three nights in August 2015 for $1,517; the Hilton for three days in October 2015 for $489 and the Alta Club in January 2016 for three nights that totaled $631.

Revelation of the luxury travel and accommodations prompted Campaign for Accountability, a government transparency group, to draft a letter to the Legislature's Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, asking for a detailed audit of how the public's money is being spent.

Campaign for Accountability officials, who have publicly opposed Utah's efforts to seize federal public land, say that some of the invoices violate the very contracts the state entered into with the firms. These contracts prohibit luxury travel and taxpayer reimbursements for alcohol.

"This is at best a case of sloppy accounting and at worst a serious abuse of public resources," Anne Weismann, CFA executive director, wrote in a statement. "Either way, Utah taxpayers deserve a full accounting of the expenses. If there is a good reason for these lawyers to bill the state of Utah for luxury hotels, let's hear it."

The commission's co-chairmen, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, and Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, issued a swift rebuke of CFA's critiques, saying that the "parties to the contract" are "in the best position to determine whether they are receiving what each side promised."

"As commission chairs, we are satisfied with the overall services and the progress Davillier and Strata have made," the lawmakers wrote in a statement.

While Stratton and Hinkins painted a rosy picture, their joint statement also noted that any items billed by Davillier and Strata that might be prohibited under the contract will be reimbursed through a reduction on future bills.

Stratton told City Weekly that $912,000 in invoices have been paid so far by Utah.

While the commission's chairmen defended their hired help, one of only two Democrats on the commission, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, says the apparent impropriety of some of the billings, and their largesse, is illustrative of the shadowy dealings of a Republican-dominated Legislature that knows no limits when it comes to attacking the federal government.

The insinuation from Stratton and Hinkins that the public, and other legislators, should simply stand by and trust them because they're close to the money and the contracts, Dabakis says, is getting old.

"It has been my everlasting anguish at the arrogance of these committee chairs and of the legislative leadership," Dabakis says. "Does the public have no sunshine ability to see where their taxpayer money is going?"

Dabakis says the invoices themselves were never met to land on the Legislature's website. He says a capital staff member accidentally gave him the invoices, and when he or she asked for them back, Dabakis refused. Then he began spreading them around.

Stratton says there is no truth to Dabakis' claim, and that the invoices were meant to be public. But as Dabakis sees it, the invoices are just the latest bank of documents that the commission wants kept in the shadows. In January, when Davillier attorney Howard presented a 150-page, $640,000 legal analysis to the commission that urged the state to sue the federal government and take its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, a key part of the analysis—the piece that outlined the possible drawbacks and pitfalls to suing—was kept private.

Dabakis and the other Democrat on the commission, Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, demanded to see this part of the report, which had apparently been viewed by Stratton and Hinkins.

Stratton says that revealing this information could harm Utah's case. "One of the challenges we're facing is the state has an interest in protecting some specific information as the potential litigation plays out," Stratton says. "We don't want to do anything that would be harmful to the interest of our state if the decision is chosen to litigate."

With invoices showing extravagant payments to Davillier, Dabakis says an independent commission ought to be appointed to review the state's spending on the public lands suit.

While an hour of Principal Attorney George Wentz' time costs $500, and a solid days work in February 2016 included drafting a report on mineral land issues (4.5 hours for $2,250), followed by a report on a similar matter (2.3 hours and $1,550), jumps off the page, it's not as if state leaders were unaware that its fight against federal management of the public's land would come cheap.

In the January report that Davillier issued to the Legislature, the costs were outlined quite well. For six months of work by a pair of senior attorneys and two paralegals, the state would be billed $1,750 per hour. At 40 hours per week, the tab would add up to $1.6 million. Hiring a Supreme Court specialist would cost $1 million; expert witnesses, $720,000; consultants, $480,000; travel, $125,000.

The grand total to bring a case to the Supreme Court? The big, round number of $14 million.

There are no commission meetings currently scheduled, but as summer inches its way to a close, and another season of lawmaking approaches, the state's public lands battle will be sure to continue to steal headlines.

What Dabakis, some legal scholars and environmental groups claim to know is that Utah stands almost no chance at victory before the Supreme Court, especially without the conservative voice of the late Antonin Scalia.

But when $14 million is up for grabs, all kinds of friends come knocking. Among the invoices is a $725 four-night stay at the Alta Club for Frank Pignanelli, a chief partner in the local lobbying firm, Foxley & Pignanelli, which has been paid tens of thousands through Davillier for various services, and keeps offices just a few blocks away from the private club.

As Stratton and Hinkins see it, Utah is actually getting a helluva deal. Davillier, they say, is working at a "significant discount," and in some cases, working for free.

A "politically motivated" letter demanding transparency, they say, 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."

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