- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 21, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The state of Utah has been reimbursed nearly $6,000 following a probe into high-class expenses billed by lawyers hired to prepare a possible $14 million lawsuit against the federal government for control of public lands, lawmakers said Wednesday.

Though critics said the review doesn’t satisfy questions about the expenses, state lawmakers said the legal consultants from New Orleans and San Diego still came in under budget because they didn’t bill for initial trips to meet with lawmakers.

“The commission’s work shouldn’t be diminished by questions raised by politically motivated groups,” Rep. Keven Stratton of Orem and Sen. David Hinkins of Orangeville, the two Republican chairs of Utah’s Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, said in a statement. “The legal analysis that was the culmination of their work is anchored in the sound constitutional principles of state sovereignty and equal footing.”

A legislative auditor found about $5,500 worth of expenses like first-class airfare, luxury hotels and alcohol that appeared to violate contracts the consultants have with.

The firm that billed those expenses, New Orleans-based Davillier Law Group, wrote a reimbursement check to the state.

Critics weren’t satisfied with the probe of bills related to preparing a potential lawsuit that the legislature’s own attorneys have warned is unlikely to succeed.

“It looks like whitewash, to be frank,” said Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis from Salt Lake City. He called for a fuller public accounting of expenses, including 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.

Questions about the expenses were raised in July by the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability.

Executive director Anne Weismann said the total expense reimbursement seemed low based on what her group had found.

Weismann said in a statement that the commission did not address key issues the group flagged liked billing inconsistencies and lawyers appearing to be paid high rates despite doing public relations work.

“Utah taxpayers can have no confidence that the Commission actually conducted a professional audit,” Weismann said.

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.

The invoices included thousands spent on first-class airfare, the luxury Grand America hotel and steakhouse meals at the exclusive Alta Club in Salt Lake City.

The contracts specify that the consultants should submit bills for coach airfare, reasonable food expenses and standard hotels. They prohibit billing for luxury items.

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