State agencies are spending millions of dollars on hiring outside lawyers, and Idaho Attorney General Al Lance says taxpayer money is being wasted.
Agencies spent about $1.3 million on outside lawyers in 1988. In 1994, they spent $6 million, a more than fourfold increase in six years.
“I don’t know that it’s justified,” he said.
Worse yet, when Lance began reviewing the deals with outside lawyers, he said he found missing case files, work paid for and not performed, and other problems.
Agency heads have been free to hire whomever they want when it comes to bringing lawyers in for state work, Lance said.
“That has been criticized in the past. The perception is there’s something going on, less than fair and open competitive proposals being made.”
Lance has a solution, one backed by at least three of his predecessors. He wants all attorneys doing state work to report to him, or, if an agency must have outside counsel, he wants his office to approve and monitor the deal.
“This has the potential of saving the taxpayer hundreds of thousands, if not millions, per year,” Lance said.
With the help of Freeman Duncan, the well-respected former legislator from Coeur d’Alene who is serving as Lance’s legislative consultant this year, Lance’s plan may fly.
Six previous tries by attorneys general to consolidate the state’s lawyers under their office have failed. At least one was vetoed.
This time, Lance negotiated with the governor’s office, lawmakers, agencies and private law firms before presenting the final version of the bill.
The bill exempts the governor’s office, the Legislature, Idaho’s colleges and universities and certain other agencies.
The attorney general has attorneys who are assigned to state agencies now, but only through contracts between his office and the agency. “We go through the charade,” Lance said. Taxpayers pay for the cost of one agency billing another.
Lawmakers on the Senate State Affairs Committee had questions about the bill last week, but voted unanimously to move it along to the full Senate for consideration.
“Does this give the opportunity for the attorney general to simply fire every attorney that has anything to do with the state? Could it be politically motivated?” asked Sen. Bruce Sweeney, D-Lewiston.
“The attorney general would have more latitude in replacing individuals he felt or she felt were not doing the job properly,” Lance responded. But, he added, that was “not the motivating factor” in his proposing the bill. Lance declined to elaborate on the improprieties he found in his review of the $6 million in contracts with outside lawyers. “There is an inquiry that’s being conducted,” he said.
Some problems with the state’s system of hiring outside lawyers have made news in the past year. Last July, a private attorney representing the state in a sexual harassment lawsuit was ordered off the case by Attorney General Larry EchoHawk because the lawyer was facing criminal charges. But the lawyer still was signing papers in the case a month later.
Allegations of influence peddling and other improprieties led to the suspension in December of two state Department of Administration employees who oversaw the handling of damage claims against the state.
Under the legislation, most legal services would be provided by deputy attorneys general. The attorney general would decide when outside counsel should be hired. That might occur for a case that requires extensive technical expertise in a specific field or a case in which the Attorney General’s office would have a conflict of interest.