Attorney General Scott Pruitt said Tuesday he's concerned about an exemption for higher education in a bill that would place bidding requirements on private attorney contracts with state agencies.
Private attorneys and law firms have made more than $47 million performing legal work for state agencies and boards since fiscal year 2005, according to annual reports filed with the attorney general's office. That works out to almost $8 million each year.
Rep. Mark McCullough, R-
“I'm hopeful the bill will pass,” McCullough said. “It is a good government reform measure. A great deal of thought, research and work has gone into this legislation.”
Top spenders listed
Among the state agencies spending the most on private attorneys since fiscal year 2005 were the Transportation Department ($11.9 million), the Grand River Dam Authority ($6.1 million) and the Department of Human Services ($5 million).
Oklahoma State University spent $2.5 million since 2005 on private attorneys and law firms, according to the annual reports.
The state Accountancy Board went from spending about $11,000 on private attorneys in 2005 to spending more than $252,000 in 2010.
Randy Ross, executive director of the board, said administrative and disciplinary actions are now handled by outside attorneys. The board also contracts with the attorney general's office for other legal work because it does not have an attorney on staff. It spent almost $32,000 through the attorney general's office in fiscal year 2010.
Ross said costs increased recently because a case went to district court.
“That's a pretty big case, and anytime you have one that goes outside the administrative process, it gets a lot more serious and lot more expensive,” said Ross, who recently became executive director.
AG part of process
Under current law, agencies and boards must apply to the attorney general's office to contract with private attorneys.
Attorneys or law firms who want to be considered for legal work also must request permission to be added to the attorney general's list.
Among the information attorneys provide are their hourly billing rates and other fees.
HB 1223 would require agencies to put out bids for private legal work on their websites. At the end of each case, private attorneys would have to detail their hours, fees and other expenses.
The bill also puts a cap on the hourly rate charged by private attorneys at $1,000.
The Legislature would continue to be exempt from restrictions in hiring private attorneys. Since fiscal year 2008, the Senate has spent $285,000 on private attorneys.
The House spent $223,000 during the same period.
Opponents of HB 1223 said agencies and boards need the flexibility that exists under current law. Some lawmakers also said the measure could give the attorney general too much control over the legal affairs of agencies.
Lawyers group unsure
Thad Balkman, executive director of the Oklahoma Lawyers Association, said his group still has concerns with HB 1223.
Balkman said forcing outside attorneys to detail their hourly billing could give away their litigation strategy.
“Most of what is in the bill can be accomplished by the attorney general without legislation,” Balkman said. “He already has the discretion whether or not to approve those contracts. I think in the past, approval was given pretty routinely.”
Pruitt said HB 1223 is a step in the right direction. In a statement, he said the exemption for higher education “does not exist in current law and would be a step backward in the state's effort to keep the public informed.”
The Senate amendment was offered by Sen. Jonathan Nichols, R-
Separately from the legislation, Pruitt has developed stricter registration requirements for private attorneys who want to contract with agencies. Those changes will remain regardless of the fate of the bill, a spokeswoman said.