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Dems want State Bar to weigh in on public lands lawsuit dispute

First Published      Last Updated Feb 29 2016 10:12 pm

A pair of Democratic legislators have filed a complaint with the Utah State Bar seeking an ethics review of a group of attorneys for refusing to share information about a potential lawsuit over the ownership of tens of millions of acres of federal land within Utah's borders.

Sen. Jim Dabakis and Rep. Joel Briscoe are the Democratic members of the Commission on Stewardship of Public Lands, which paid lawyers from the Davillier law firm $640,000 to assess whether the state could win a lawsuit claiming ownership of more than 30 million acres of federal land in Utah.

But Dabakis and Briscoe say that the lawyers have repeatedly refused to give them information about weaknesses in a potential lawsuit.




"They simply, we believe, have done us dirty. We are the clients. Joel and I are the clients. The commission is the client and they won't give to their own clients the legal work that cost taxpayers $600,000," Dabakis said Monday. "Just because we're Democrats doesn't mean we don't have a right to look at this information. It shouldn't be secret."

In a meeting in late January, attorney George Wentz told Dabakis and Briscoe that, under the contract they signed, the two commission co-chairmen, not the entire commission, are the attorneys' clients, and the lawyers could not share any non-public information with commission members without permission from the two leaders.

Commission co-chairman David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, has said previously that he hasn't had any private meetings or received any information that hasn't been made available to Dabakis and Briscoe.

So on Monday, attorney Steven Dougherty wrote a letter to the Utah State Bar requesting an advisory opinion on whether the lawyers hired by the commission have an ethical obligation to share information with all of the commission members and whether denying Dabakis and Briscoe the information constitutes a conflict of interest.

Sean Toomey, spokesman for the Utah State Bar, said requests for advisory opinions are sent to the Office of Professional Conduct's Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee, which can either provide an opinion in response or decline to weigh in on the question.

The public lands commission voted in December to recommend proceeding with crafting a complaint that could be filed on behalf of Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes. The law firm estimated that, if the state proceeds with the lawsuit, it could cost taxpayers $14 million.

Briscoe said it seems clear that Republicans in the Legislature have wanted for years to sue the federal government for ownership of the lands and don't want any questions about the validity of the suit to get in the way of that goal.

"What is it they're trying to hide?" said Dabakis. "This is $14 million and they don't want the people whose money it is to know what it's for."

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

 

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