Â©2009, The Oklahoman
Out-of-state firms are among the top private law firms receiving contracts from state agencies, according to an analysis of reports from the attorney general’s office by The Oklahoman.
In the past three years, state agencies have paid private attorneys nearly $24 million for legal work, according to reports. Davis, Graham and Stubbs, a Denver firm that specializes in managing public employee pensions, was paid $945,852 — the most among private law firms with state contracts, according to payment records from the Office of State Finance.
"The revelation that taxpayers are footing the bill for outside attorneys to the tune of $24 million shows that the practice of overspending is not just confined to Congress; it’s happening at the state Capitol, as well,” said Brian Downs, executive director of the watchdog group Oklahomans for Responsible Government.
In many cases, state agencies hired private law firms because the state attorney general’s staff is overburdened with cases or doesn’t have the expertise to handle complex areas of law, said Susan K. Noland, assistant attorney general and chief of the litigation section.
Noland reviews agency requests to hire private attorneys. Agencies are required by law to submit a request to the state attorney general when requesting outside attorneys. Agency boards approve the contracts to hire private law firms.
"Our division has more than 1,000 open cases at one time and 17 attorneys,” Noland said. "A lot of times, we try to work with outside counsel to cut down on the cost. But sometimes our office doesn’t have the expertise or resources to handle the cases.”
Who is doing the work?
Law firms from Washington, Dallas and Denver, as well as firms that include former state officials, are among the top law firms receiving state contracts, according to The Oklahoman’s
The attorney general’s office tracks how much money each state agency spends on private legal services but does not track the dollar amount private firms are paid.
Agencies submit paperwork with a projected contract amount but are not required to list how much a firm is actually paid. In some cases, it can be less than the contract amount, depending on how much work is involved.
Some law firms are hired for their expertise.
Robert Jones, an attorney and the executive director of the Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System, said the Denver-firm Davis, Graham and Stubbs is one of a few law firms that specializes in this sort of work. The law firm has three separate contracts to help manage pension funds for firefighters, police and other law enforcement officers.
"That’s what the board is paying for,” Jones said. The firm ensures that the multibillion dollar pension fund meets IRS requirements and holds its tax-free status.
"Nobody wants to think of our fund not qualifying,” Jones said.
The projected contract amount for the firm is often higher than the actual amount paid at the end of the year, he said.
"I do that so I don’t have to go back and adjust my budget with the Office of State Finance,” he said.
Law firms of former officials receive contracts
Former state officials also benefit from public contracts with private law firms. Over the past three state fiscal years, the law firm of Taylor, Burrage, Foster, Mallet, Downs & Ramsey has had four separate contracts with the Grand River Dam Authority. The law firm includes Stratton Taylor, a former state representative and former ranking Senate Democrat from the Claremore area. The firm also includes current Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore.
Records from the attorney general’s office show the law firm had contracts totaling $1.4 million over the past three years.