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

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.

Travel tab

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.

“I can’t think of reasons why a law firm would [pay a subcontractor to arrange travel] except to hide travel expenses,” Stevens said. “If you’re a law firm, you’re trying to justify expenses to your clients, so you [typically] list all your expenses to your clients of what you did and why you did it.”

Reached by phone, Wentz refused to answer any questions about the scope of his firm’s work for the county or the billings. He also declined to comment on what services ISAP provided to the firm.

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.”

Flood of lawsuits

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, who sat on the San Juan County Commission from 2011 through 2018 and signed off on the original contract with Davillier as well as several invoices, said of the county’s high legal fees during his commission tenure that “lawyers are expensive.” He pointed to more than $3 million in legal fees attorneys for the Navajo Nation have requested related to a seven-year voting rights lawsuit brought against the county.

Lyman said the county was defending itself from attacks by environmentalists. Groups working to promote the Bears Ears designation were also well-funded, with companies like outdoor gear maker Patagonia pouring millions of dollars into pro-monument marketing campaigns.

Kelly Pehrson, who served as county administrator at the time, said in response to an emailed question regarding Davillier’s use of subcontractors, “If I remember right, George Wentz had a whole team of lobbyists working for him.”

Pehrson said the county was "spending money to defend ourselves,” and he, too, pointed to the high bills submitted by attorneys in the unrelated voting rights lawsuit.

The Tribune also discovered San Juan County overpaid Davillier by more than $109,500 in May 2017.

On May 1, Lyman signed an invoice for Davillier’s services in April 2017 that totaled more than $109,500. Davillier submitted a new bill for the same itemized charges May 15, this time for $106,500. A few items had been removed that, it appears, were erroneously included 15 days earlier. Nothing on the second bill indicated it was a duplicate except the overlapping list of itemized expenses, and that bill was initialed by Pehrson.

Both the original, erroneous bill and the corrected bill were paid by the county, according to fillings on the Utah Transparency website and to San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws, who reviewed the newspaper’s findings. Neither Lyman nor Pehrson was aware of the double charge at the time, and Davillier accepted both payments.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Arch Canyon, within Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, is seen May 8, 2017.

The charge may have been overlooked by the county as the bills were shuffled between a number of officials. Pehrson said the county clerk typically would present the commissioners with a payable list to sign off on at each meeting. If they had questions about the lump sums on the list, they could ask the clerk to see an itemized invoice.

Adams said it usually was the job of the county administrator or the county attorney to review the invoices, and if they had a question about charges, they were supposed to bring it up to the commission.

“We asked the county attorney to review those line by line on behalf of the commission,” Adams said of the typical way legal bills were reviewed. “And then if there was no problem with them, I think he’d send them off to be paid.”

Adams said he couldn’t recall any instances when the attorney or administrator identified problems with invoices. (Since Davillier’s Bears Ears-related work was not litigation, Pehrson or Lyman signed off on each of those invoices, not Laws.)

Interim County Administrator David Everitt, who took over for Pehrson in May, said the double charge and previous method for approving invoices raise serious procedural concerns.

“I know there were some inconsistencies around who was approving bills prior to my arrival,” Everitt said. “There haven’t been any major formal policy changes made, but there will be.”

Laws is working with Davillier to arrange a refund of the $109,500 overcharge to the county, and it is expected to occur in the coming week.

Strained county coffers

At an Oct. 4, 2016, commission meeting, Lyman, Adams and then-Commissioner Rebecca Benally voted to ask Davillier for a budget for potential legal work related to Bears Ears.

Lyman signed a representation agreement with Davillier and gave a $10,000 retainer to the law firm on Oct. 25. No formal vote to enter into the contract is recorded in meeting minutes for the month, and only Lyman’s signature appears on the contract.

Adams thought a public vote typically would have been held to initiate a legal contract, but could not recall the specifics of the Davillier case. The contract says the law group was to provide “legal advice” for the county. It does not mention lobbying.

“Looking back on it, we’d probably do things a little different,” Adams said of Davillier’s work.

Trump signed an executive order to reduce Bears Ears by 85% in December 2017, a move Lyman, Adams and Benally celebrated, but Adams said it’s hard to pinpoint whether Davillier was instrumental in that final outcome.

“They claimed a lot of victories [but] the state was also claiming a lot of stuff," Adams said. "It was just hard to say who should get credit for what.”

Trump’s Bears Ears reductions are being challenged in federal court by environmental groups and five Native American tribes.

Lyman, Adams and Benally worked as a commission to intervene on that lawsuit on Trump’s behalf in 2018, but newly elected Commissioners Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, both Democrats and proponents of Bears Ears, withdrew the county from the suit earlier this year.

In an interview last month, Grayeyes expressed concern about the millions in legal bills racked up by the county under the previous commission.

At their last regular meeting, the commissioners discussed the possibility that county reserve funds may have to be tapped partly to pay for legal expenses incurred before 2019.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.