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Watchdogs: Lands-Lawsuit Lawyer Bills Warrant Audit

A watchdog group wants an investigation of spending by the legal team exploring a suit against the federal government over 30 million acres of public land in Utah. Democrats on the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands have sought transparency.

A watchdog group is joining the call for an investigation into the expenses of Utah’s lands-transfer lawsuit.

  • A $1,300 receipt for staying at the posh Grand America Hotel.
  • A beer tab prohibited in state contracts.
  • Lawyers charging $500 an hour and more for public relations and lobbying.

The nonprofit Campaign for Accountability says Utah taxpayers deserve better oversight of money being spent by lawyers under contract.

“My questions have to deal with why the hell they are wasting taxpayers’ money on these ridiculous expenses, when it’s the taxpayers’ money,” says Democratic State Sen. Jim Dabakis of Salt Lake City. “It’s not their little slush fund.”

He gave the watchdog group billing records that Republican committee leaders had tried to keep confidential.

“They stonewalled us,” he says.

Then, on Wednesday, the group sent a letter to the leaders of the Commission on the Stewardship of Public Lands. That’s the legislative panel overseeing plans for a lawsuit seeking state ownership of millions of acres of federal lands in Utah. Lawmakers have already appropriated millions dollars for the legal work on a case critics call fruitless, and the accountability campaign wants an investigation of its spending.

The watchdog group echoes complaints Dabakis has been making for months about transparency and accountability.

“These were not political questions,” he says. “These were budget questions. These are questions that every Utah taxpayer has the right to know.”

Leaders of the stewardship commission called the criticisms “politically motivated”  in a statement issued late Wednesday. They also said they’re satisfied with the overall work of the legal team and will address any billings that turn out to be improper.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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