AP Exclusive: Under radar, Florida spent $240M on lawyers

- Gov. Rick Scott and other top Florida Republicans frequently complain about government spending, but they have quietly spent more than $237 million on private lawyers to advance and defend their agendas, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Florida taxpayers also have been forced to reimburse nearly $16 million for their opponents' private attorney fees. That means an overall $253 million has been spent on legal fights in the last six years, including a water war with Georgia and 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.

"A quarter of a billion dollars is a gosh lot of money," said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed group that scrutinizes state spending.

Much of the state's legal spending doesn't show up in the normal process of assembling the state's $82 billion budget.

Attorney General Pam Bondi oversees a legal budget of nearly $309 million a year that helps pay for 450 state lawyers, but all that in-house legal firepower hasn't stopped state leaders from hiring private attorneys. And no one in state government is closely tracking what their hourly rates add up to.

"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," said Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi.

The Associated Press came up with the figure by analyzing budget documents and the results of public records requests.

The AP review found that Florida has spent more than $237 million on outside lawyering since 2011, a figure that averages to nearly $40 million a year, plus nearly $16 million reimbursing private attorney fees on opposing sides.

Hiring private counsel in expenditures that fall outside the normal budget process seems common in state governments around the country, though perhaps not on the same scale as during the Scott administration.

New York has spent more than $86 million since 2012, or about $17 million a year, on outside lawyering, according to that state's comptroller. California's Democratic leaders recently approved payments of $25,000 a month to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm to defend the state's interests against President Donald Trump's policies.

In Florida, it was the soaring cost of the state's water war against Georgia - more than $41 million in the last 18 months alone- that started to raise eyebrows when the Department of Environmental Protection sought more money in January.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and House budget chief, called the department's legal spending a "runaway train."

His response when told that the overall state tab for private legal fees is about a quarter-billion dollars?

"Insane," Trujillo said.

Trujillo said "nobody is disputing" that defending Florida's water rights is important, but "as taxpayers and constituents, we have the right to ask: 'Is it necessary, are we overpaying?'"

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who ordered a legislative review, was even more blunt: "We are getting gouged, and that needs to be fixed."

Scott on Monday said it part of his job - and Bondi's job - to stand up for the state.

"I think it's very important to defend the laws of our state," Scott said. "There's many laws passed by an overwhelming majority of the Legislature that sometimes the outside decides to sue over."

A spokeswoman for Scott, Jackie Schutz, added that outside lawyers are used when there are "complex legal matters or specific expertise needed."

The decades-long water dispute took a new and expensive turn when Scott asked the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 to limit the water Georgia takes from the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river basin. Florida argues that Georgia has guzzled more than its share of water at the expense of Florida's oyster industry.

Bondi's office handed the case over to one of the world's most prestigious firms, Latham & Watkins, whose lawyers charge up to $825 an hour. The firm's bills to date almost doubled the funding Scott personally requested in late 2014 to repair the Apalachicola Bay watershed.

Scott, an attorney and multimillionaire businessman who ran one of the nation's largest for-profit hospital chains, had no apologies for the rising costs in the water wars case saying "we're going to the Supreme Court and I'm going to keep fighting."

Ryan Matthews, the interim secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection, said last week that his staff "carefully reviews every invoice" related in the battle with Georgia. He also said that since July 2015, DEP has denied more than $3 million in legal expenses and hourly charges.

Ray, the spokesman for Bondi's office, notes her agency's lawyers are assigned to duties such as handling criminal appeals and Medicaid fraud cases and that only 39 attorneys are assigned to civil cases. Bondi's office must approve the hiring of outside attorneys by state agencies. Her office keeps a list of outside lawyers hired and hourly fees charged.

Ray added there are several reasons that Bondi's office may not take up a case including that it "falls into an area in which our office lacks specialized expertise, there is a conflict of interest, or the matter is pending outside the state of Florida."

But no one keeps track of the overall spending. The governor, Legislature and other state elected officials, such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, do not have to report their spending on legal fees to the state's chief legal officer.

To capture that total, the AP sought public records on all the firms hired and outside lawyers used. It asked agencies how much they spent. The office of Florida's Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater maintains a website where the public can see spending on individual contracts, and provided information on legal settlements.

Calabro said the state may be hiring outside counsel for good reasons, but the cost of this lawyering "has hardly gotten any attention" by either Democrats or Republicans

___

Associated Press writer David Klepper in Albany, New York, contributed to this story.

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