- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 6, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Lawyers hired to help Utah prepare a $14 million lawsuit against the federal government for control of public lands billed the state for first-class airfare, stays at luxury hotels and steakhouse meals, according to invoices flagged Wednesday by a watchdog group.

The expenses were submitted over the past year by legal consultants from New Orleans and San Diego who were hired by Utah lawmakers on a public lands commission.

The Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands has been working on a conservative push to take control of millions of acres of federal land. It hired the consultants last summer to help prepare a lawsuit that’s expected to be filed sometime in 2017.

Some expenses, such as first-class airfare, appear to violate the consultants’ contracts with the commission.

The commission’s Republican chairmen - Rep. Keven Stratton of Orem and Republican Sen. David Hinkins of Orangeville - said in a statement late Wednesday that for any expenses that may violate the contract, the commission will seek a reimbursement or cut future payments. “We will require billing adjustments where warranted and will continue to carefully review and monitor future invoices.”

The statement said the “questions raised in the media today shouldn’t diminish efforts to investigate the legal feasibility of Utah’s work to manage public lands at a local level.”

The lawmakers also said that the consultants had performed some work at “a significant discount” and are willing to reimburse wherever appropriate.

They also endorsed a process in place to pay bills. “Despite the impression created by some of today’s media coverage, the process was designed to ensure that the Commission received the information and assistance promised by the contracts at a reasonable price. This has generally worked very well.”

The invoices include a $900 first-class, round-trip ticket to Salt Lake City submitted by George Wentz of the New Orleans-based Davillier Law Group; and first-class flights for about $750 and $1,270 to Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C., from San Diego attorney John W. Howard.

Invoices show Howard also submitted bills for a $1,500, three-night stay at The Grand America, a luxury Salt Lake City hotel. The room cost an average of about $380 a night.

The documents also show steakhouse meals and stays at Salt Lake City’s private Alta Club.

The contracts specify that the consultants should submit bills for standard, coach-class airfare, “reasonable and necessary food while traveling,” and “standard size and type hotel rooms.” It prohibits billing for luxury items and says the consultants will make an effort to keep expenses as low as possible.

Messages left with Howard and Wentz were not returned Wednesday.

Anne Weismann, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability, said the expenses flagged by her group show sloppy accounting at best and a serious abuse of taxpayer funds at worst.

“Either way, Utah taxpayers deserve a full accounting of the expenses,” Weismann said in a statement. “If there is a good reason for these lawyers to bill the state of Utah for luxury hotels, let’s hear it.”

Weismann’s group is calling on the commission to conduct an audit and recoup any unjustified payments or overcharges.

The Campaign for Accountability also said invoices show lawyers overbilled the state for work, charging their $500 hourly rate for legal work when receipts show they were doing public relations work, which is to be paid at a lower rate. That money is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars the legal team and commission have already paid public relations firms to help make a case for the pending lawsuit.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Democrat who sits on the commission and has questioned the costs of the legal and public relations team, called the expenses embarrassing and an outrage.

“It’s time we suspended anybody that’s getting any money on any of these contracts,” he said. “It appears as though the contracts were blatantly disregarded.”

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