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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.)
“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.
“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.
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.