San Juan County paid nearly $500K to Louisiana law firm to lobby for Bears Ears reductions

This story originally appeared at Read it in its entirety here.

Two months before President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument in late 2016, San Juan County hired a New Orleans-based law firm to fight against the designation and later to lobby for the monument’s reduction.

The southeastern Utah county paid $485,600 to Davillier Law Group in 2016 and 2017 to research past monument reductions and to prepare packets of information that were sent to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, according to itemized billings obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

That’s no small sum, especially for a county that’s the poorest in the state, with a per capita income of $17,500. San Juan spent more than $2 million on outside legal counsel from 2016 to 2018 as it was mired in at least six lawsuits, the costs of which continue to strain the county budget.
Davillier researched the effect of the Bears Ears designation on “uranium mining inside the monument” as well as its impacts on the White Mesa Mill, the only conventional uranium mill in the country, which is located just outside the monument boundaries near White Mesa.

George Wentz, the attorney supervising the services, billed $500 an hour to coordinate efforts with Matt Anderson, then an employee of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative Salt Lake City-based think tank that was campaigning heavily against the monument at the time through a series of op-eds, blogs and videos. (The institute declined to comment on contacts with Wentz.)

Wentz also charged the county to work on a “legal memorandum in support of president’s ability to rescind [the monument] proclamation, with focus on concise presentation to [President Donald] Trump.”

In April 2017, Wentz worked with consultants to set up a meeting between all three San Juan County commissioners and Zinke in Washington, a closed-door gathering that sparked an Open and Public Meetings Act lawsuit by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. (The case was dismissed, but SUWA appealed and opening briefs were filed before the Utah Supreme Court on July 18.)

In the lead-up to Zinke’s visit to San Juan County in May 2017, Davillier worked to arrange meetings between Zinke and then-Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, at the White Mesa Mill, which is owned by Energy Fuels Inc. The company also was engaged in its own campaign to reduce Bears Ears. Weeks after Zinke’s Utah visit, Energy Fuels CEO Mark Chalmers wrote a letter to the secretary requesting the monument boundaries be adjusted and later hired a team of lobbyists led by the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler.

Billings from Davillier also include legal research into the federal government’s right to manage public lands and an “interstate compact to reverse all monuments in Idaho and Utah.” Wentz explored whether the president can rescind a monument based on national security concerns, in this case related to uranium issues.

Wentz’s services were not cheap. He charged the county his full rate of $500 an hour to travel to Salt Lake City on Jan. 26, 2017.

The next day, he presented to the Rural Caucus on Capitol Hill, and met with the San Juan County Commission and then-House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper. That evening, he flew to Spokane, Wash.

In total, Wentz billed for 17 hours and 12 minutes of work on Jan. 27 alone, charging $8,285. That number included $2,750 for 5½ hours of plane travel.

Wentz’s associate, Richard Seamon, billed $500 an hour for 15½ hours in a single day in February.

Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican who has sat on the commission for 15 years, said in response to a description of the charges, “That’s ridiculous.”

“I had no idea that was going on,” Adams added, though he recalled the county eventually breaking off ties with Davillier after a discussion about the firm’s rates.

Davillier appears to have stopped charging for Bears Ears lobbying in April 2017, but the county continued to pay the firm for services related to a lawsuit over an ATV trail in Indian Creek and an RS2477 right-of-way claim in Recapture Canyon through June 2018. From 2016 to 2018, the county paid the firm a total of $561,000.

Davillier came under fire in 2016 for its billings to the state when the law firm was investigating whether federal land could be transferred to Utah. Itemized bills showed spending on lavish meals, first-class flights, bar tabs and stays in Salt Lake City’s finest hotels.

Two itemized travel expenses were provided to San Juan County by Davillier in 2017. Each bill includes payment to a subcontractor named Industrial Security Alliance Partners Inc. (ISAP) for “professional services and travel expenses.”

Davillier paid between $25,000 and $34,000 to ISAP each month between January and March 2017. In April, ISAP was paid $50,000, with two nondescript $25,000 charges in both the “expense” category of the invoice and the “services” category.

A $25,000 monthly retainer was also billed for “professional services” provided by the D.C. International advisory firm.

In all the invoices, two travel expenses are itemized, $1,400 for a Delta Air Lines flight and $125 for a night in a Salt Lake City hotel.

It’s unclear what additional travel services were arranged by a ISAP, but Daniel Stevens, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, said it’s possible Davillier was trying to hide travel costs by charging them to a subcontractor.

The Tribune filed an open records request for an itemized breakdown of the subcontractor fees and any deliverables the firm provided the county, but the county clerk said neither of those records exists.

“If you’re seeing nonitemized expenditures of many thousands of dollars for travel expense, I think a reasonably prudent friend of the taxpayer would be calling up that law firm pretty quickly and asking what is this about,” said David Irvine, an attorney in Salt Lake City and a former Utah legislator.

“There’s very likely some bill padding going on there,” added Irvine, who also sits on the board of the Alliance for a Better Utah and helped represent current San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes after his Utah residency was challenged and he was briefly removed from the ballot by the county clerk before his successful 2018 election. “[Davillier] was doing it to the state. I would imagine they were treating the county perhaps the same way, maybe feeling that they were a bit more gullible. Who knows?”

Irvine said that while it’s not unusual for attorneys to bill for travel time, it is uncommon for clients to pay $500 an hour for flights.

“If I’m billing a client travel time,” he said, “I’m cutting my rate in half or below just because that’s really socking it to somebody.”

This story originally appeared at Read it in its entirety here.

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