SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers leading the push for the state to seek control of federal lands are under scrutiny again for their work with outside legal consultants, this time for a perceived lack of transparency about what the firm is doing as preparations for a lawsuit drag into a third year with no action.
The Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability on Thursday called on the co-chairs of Utah’s Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands to produce a full review of expenditures and accused the commission of allowing the $2 million set aside for the project to become “a slush fund.” The group said its numerous public records requests have been denied.
Utah brought in the New Orleans-based Davillier Law Group in 2014 to access the viability and prepare a lawsuit that would attempt to force the U.S. government to hand over control of federal lands that make up about two-thirds of the state.
The firm reimbursed Utah $6,000 last year after a probe found the group had expensed things like first-class airfare, luxury hotels and alcohol that appeared to violate contracts.
“If they are doing this lawsuit why is it taking so long and how is the $2 million being spent?” said Daniel Stevens, the organization’s executive director. “Taxpayers have a right to know what they are getting for it.”
Utah state Rep. Keven Stratton, co-chair of the commission, said some of the information is being withheld because of attorney-client privilege. All expenditures have been submitted for review, Stratton said. He couldn’t immediately provide the figure of how much money has been spent.
The Campaign for Accountability is fundamentally against Utah’s efforts to get more control over federal lands that make up two-thirds of the state and is looking to disrupt the process anyway it can, Stratton said.
Though the commission voted in December 2015 to move forward with a lawsuit, which the Utah Attorney General Office’s would have to approve, Stratton said Thursday that the commission is taking more of a wait-and-see approach with President Donald Trump now in charge.
“There’s a sense that the current administration is seeking to address many of the concerns we have,” said Stratton, a Republican. “We’re letting that play out. The litigation may or may not be needed at this point.”
Dan Burton, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, said his office is waiting for a draft of the lawsuit from the Davillier Law Group. Once the office receives the draft, attorneys would analyze it and determine whether to file a lawsuit, Burton said.
The Davillier Law Group didn’t return a call for comment.
The push to seize control of federal lands ratcheted up in 2012 when Utah passed a law demanding the federal government hand over the lands by the end of 2014. When that deadline quietly passed, Utah legislators began weighing a possible lawsuit.
Supporters of the plan argue that the state would be a better managers of the land and that local control would a allow Utah to make money from taxes and development rights on those acres.
Utah state Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Democrat and former member of the commission who frequently criticized the project, applauded the Campaign for Accountability for publicly questioning something that most Utah state officials are turning a blind eye to. He said he was denied by the commission chairs when he asked to see the latest expenditures before being asked to leave the commission earlier this year.
“It’s the biggest abuse of public funding I’ve seen in my time,” Dabakis said. “This is hidden, secret government at its absolute worst.”