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Florida pays nearly $240mn to private lawyers, on top of attorney general’s budget

Florida pays nearly $240mn to private lawyers, on top of attorney general’s budget
Republican officeholders in Florida have spent more than $237 million on private lawyers to advance and defend their government agendas since 2011, a new report has found. This is outside the budget for the attorney general and other public lawyers.

In total, the Sunshine State spent more than half a billion on non-public counsel, the Associated Press found in an investigation. On top of the over $237 million that Florida taxpayers have spent on private attorneys fees since 2011, they also footed the bill for nearly $16 million to reimburse private attorneys fees for the state’s opponents.

"A quarter of a billion dollars is a gosh lot of money," Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed state spending watchdog, told AP.

It comes out to about $40 million a year, not including the money spent on attorneys fees for opposing counsel. That’s equal to approximately 13 percent of the annual legal budget of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and the 450 lawyers her office employs. It’s not included in the attorney general’s budget, however. Nor is it part of the state’s $82 billion budget.

No one in Bondi’s office is keeping track of the outside payments, either.

"We do not have that information and are unaware of a way to capture expenditures for the purchase of outside legal services that would not entail an exhaustive search of documents," Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi, told AP.

The Scott administration sought to downplay the amount, arguing that outside counsel is sometimes necessary.

"When there are complex legal matters or specific expertise needed, including defending laws passed by the legislature, we utilize available resources and, as required by statute, get approval from the Attorney General's office," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz told AP. "It's no surprise that our office vigorously defends the laws we sign.”

A significant chunk of the outside expenditures comes from the state’s ongoing water war with neighboring Georgia, which has cost more than $41 million in the last 18 months alone. The dispute has lasted decades, but got more expensive in 2013 when Scott turned to the US Supreme Court. Other legal fights included in the combined $253 million in private attorneys fees since 2011 include losing battles to test welfare recipients for drugs, trim the state's voter registration lists and ban companies that do business with Cuba from bidding on government contracts, AP reported.

Water was also a big reason for hiring private lawyers for at least one other state: In Michigan, Republican Governor Rick Snyder hired private attorneys to provide legal counsel for the Flint water crisis, to the tune of $1.2 million in taxpayer funds.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a fellow Republican, complained at the end of June that state investigators were being stonewalled by Snyder’s private attorneys and by state agencies when he sought documents related to the contamination of Flint’s water supply.

Snyder disagreed with Schuette’s assessment, pointing to the large amounts of materials that his attorneys had already handed over to investigators, saying that those documents numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Schuette himself was authorized to spend $4.9 million to pay for attorneys and investigators during the Flint probe.

Hiring private lawyers is not all that unusual, just not usually to the extent that Florida has employed the practice. New York has spent about $17 million a year on outside counsel since 2012, totalling more than $86 million, AP reported.

It’s often seen as a cost-cutting or efficiency measure, and is especially useful in large and complex cases, as well as niche ones that don’t require a full-time specialist.  In California, for example, Democratic lawmakers approved payments of $25,000 a month to hire former US Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm to defend the Golden State’s interests against the Trump administration’s agenda, according to AP.

State attorneys general and other government lawyers usually “operate on a limited budget, with only a handful of attorneys on the civil enforcement beat,” Linda Singer, a former attorney general for the District of Columbia, wrote for Law360 last April. “Because of that, they look to the assistance of outside counsel for support in their most resource-intensive cases.”

While private lawyers aren’t appropriate in every case, according to Singer, they help even the playing field when facing major corporations “with legions of lawyers at their disposal, whose scorched-earth litigation tactics outmatch their enforcers and enable them to avoid accountability.”

The best way to pay private attorneys is through contingent fees, she argued, rather than hourly or fixed fees.