Review of Public Lands Legal Expenses Finds Some Improper Spending

Utah State CapitolUtah House Republicans were told Wednesday that the Legislature’s federal lands commission’s consultants spent their travel and alcohol reimbursements appropriately.

In fact, a legislative staff review of the consultants’ reimbursements shows the commission saved $400 when you take into account what was properly paid for and what the consultants could have asked for, but didn’t.

It’s a touchy issue, for Utah Democrats, and outside groups have lambasted the GOP majority for allocating taxpayer funds to fight the federal government for millions of acres of lands now held by the U.S. Forest Service and BLM.

A better government group criticized the commission – made up of GOP and Democratic legislators – for approving unwise consultant spending, like $21 for one beer and first-class airline tickets – billed by the out-of-state, New Orleans-based, consultants.

The consultants concluded that Utah is on firm footing to sue the federal government over millions of acres promised at statehood, but kept in federal hands for more than 100 years.

GOP state officials want control of that land to better fund public schools, provide recreation and jobs in rural Utah.

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, co-chair of the lands commission, read out in the open House Republican caucus a summary of the Legislature’s own staff research on reimbursements given to the consultants.

The consultants were ultimately paid more than $950,000 out of the $6.5 million appropriated over several years for legal analysis and court costs, — the final court case likely going to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Several numbers were thrown around by Stratton – what could have been billed, what was billed, what was legal to be charged (everything billed was legal), what state reimbursement policy allows, and such.

When what was paid was compared to what could have been asked for (but was not), what the consultant’s contract allowed (less than standard state contract reimbursements) all came together, said Stratton, the Legislature saved $400 on the payment of around $950,000.

Stratton said around $121,000 could have been billed by the law firm doing the legal work, but was not b because the firm decided not to charge that much.

Stratton said the current strategy is for the Public Land Initiative bill sponsored by Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, both R-Utah, to play out in the Congress. Wait for a new U.S. Supreme Court justice to be confirmed, analyze his or her states’ rights beliefs, see who wins the presidency, and then go from there.

The final decision to sue belongs to Attorney General Sean Reyes and Gov. Gary Herbert, both Republicans.

An early, poorly timed federal lawsuit could harm Utah’s chances of winning control of those federal lands.

In the meantime, the GOP-controlled Legislature, with Democrats objecting along the way, has passed more than 30 pieces of legislation aimed at setting the stage and helping Utah win those lands.

“It’s a legal question of equal protection under the (admission to Unionhood) equal footing doctrine,” said Stratton, adding despite what you might read in the newspapers or hear from opponents, Utah has a fine chance of winning its case.

“In every way, we are leading the nation,” in trying to regain lands promised at Statehood, but never given by Congress, he added.

The commission’s consultants, in a lengthy report, said it could cost as much as $14 million for Utah to bring and win a federal court challenge.

That $14 million number has been grabbed by Democrats and opponents and often repeated in the media, complained Stratton and Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville.

The $14 million number will never be spent, said Stratton, for it is way out of bounds, way too high.

The original legal strategy cost $950,000, half of the $2 million appropriated. Only $6.5 million has been set aside by the Legislature, not $14 million.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, an attorney specializing in constitutional issues, said the $14 million number is crazy, because many good lawyers, including himself, would be glad to donate time to represent Utah.

“And there are non-profits out there” who, for their own reasons, would like to help Utah sue the feds over lands, he added, because it would be a big first step in legally establishing states rights and fundamental federalism.

Speaking of the consultant work and their reimbursements, Stratton said, “We are very pleased with the outcome.”

Just one example, said Stratton, the review shows the consultants could have asked for $5,900 more in travel reimbursements, but didn’t, deciding to bear that financial burden themselves.