CfA Demands Audit of Legislative Expenditures for Utah Land Transfer Lawsuit

Photo: Flickr: Drew Tarvin

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 6, 2016

Contact: Daniel Stevens, dstevens@campaignforaccountability.org, 202.780.5750

Expensive travel, alcohol, and prohibited lobbying all apparently billed to Utah taxpayers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, in a letter to the chairs of the Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands and the director and legislative general counsel of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, Campaign for Accountability (CfA) called for a full accounting of the nearly one million dollars the commission has spent to date to develop a lawsuit to compel the federal government to transfer national public lands to the state.

Read the Letter here.

CfA’s review of the hundreds of pages of invoices from Davillier Law Group and Strata Policy for work done by outside lawyers, public relations firms, and polling experts reveals apparent prohibited lobbying expenditures, luxury travel, and significant billing discrepancies — all at taxpayer expense.  Despite contracts that required coach travel and standard hotel room rates, CfA uncovered evidence of first-class air travel and numerous stays at an exclusive private club.

“This is at best a case of sloppy accounting and at worst a serious abuse of public resources,” said Anne Weismann, CfA Executive Director. “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.”

While the potential lawsuit itself has drawn significant public scrutiny and criticism, the commission’s use of the $2 million appropriated by the legislature for a lawsuit has been largely overlooked. CfA’s review shows that an audit and reconciliation of the many billing irregularities is long overdue.

The total cost of the lawsuit is estimated to exceed $14 million, with the $2 million appropriated so far serving only as a down payment.  The attorney general and governor have not yet formally approved any lawsuit.

Issues CfA uncovered include:

  • Almost $1,300 for a three-night stay at Salt Lake City’s only AAA Five Diamond hotel, the Grand American Hotel;
  • Over $1,300 for two separate stays at the exclusive private Alta Club in Salt Lake City, including one stay that included lodging on Saturday and Sunday; and
  • Meals for three totaling $366, mileage for two totaling $278, and a $21 charge for beer reimbursed by the Utah taxpayers. The meals did not include itemized receipts, making it impossible to know if Utah taxpayers paid for additional alcohol, which would have been in clear violation of a contractual provision barring the expense of alcoholic beverages.

Despite a prohibition on lobbying expenditures, one week after the Public Lands Initiative draft was released, the lead attorney billed the State to “review[] and analyze[] PLI further,” and spent the next two days meeting with Utah legislators, including Rep. Bishop on January 29, 2016, charging more than $4,200 for these meetings.

While the contracts provide that legal services are charged at a higher rate than relations services, lawyers routinely billed at their higher rates for public relations work, including:

  • Conducting an interview for a Heritage Foundation video;
  • Reviewing and responding to comments from the Los Angeles Times, reviewing an op-ed, and reviewing correspondence concerning a video.

All expenses can be seen here at the “Related Links” tab.  Read the letter below.

CfA is nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.