The recipient was San Diego-based law firm JW Howard Attorneys, whose work to sue the federal government over a controversial county-claimed route in Recapture Canyon near Blanding has now rung up a total tab of $440,000.
“The new County Commission came into 2019 with other priorities and Recapture [Canyon] wasn’t one of them,” said County Attorney Kendall Laws, a Democrat who had regular contact with Howard over the past three years. “[The Recapture case] continued forward because no position was taken by the new commission that was contrary to that of the previous commission.”
County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy said he was surprised by the $94,000 charge, noting that he had tried several times to get clarity on the county’s legal entanglements after being elected in 2018.
“I wasn’t even aware of it,” Maryboy said. “This is something that makes me feel like I’m being undermined.”
Maryboy and fellow Democratic Commissioner Willie Grayeyes requested that county officials prepare “a litigation inventory, listing all cases in which the county or any of its officials or employees is currently a party or in which the county seeks to be a party” as one of their first actions after the 2018 election.
Despite the millions of dollars the county was paying to outside legal counsel, most of the contracts were never approved in open public meetings. Howard’s 2016 contract and initial $15,000 retainer fee, for instance, were signed only by Lyman and do not appear in commission meeting minutes.
Laws responded to Maryboy and Grayeyes’ request for a litigation inventory on Nov. 27, 2018, saying he could provide the inventory, but it “may take me a few days.”
More than two months later, the inventory still hadn’t been produced. So, on Feb. 15, 2019, the commission unanimously passed a resolution formally directing Laws to complete the inventory. Due to delays in getting the item on the commission’s meeting agenda, the deadline specified in the resolution had already passed.
Before the resolution went to a vote and nearly five months after they’d first requested the inventory, Laws handed the commissioners hundreds of pages of invoices and a spreadsheet summarizing the county’s legal entanglements.
Grayeyes then moved to table the resolution to sue Laws, and it never was reconsidered.
“The case was then consolidated (San Juan stipulated to the consolidation) into the larger state of Utah case [in May 2018],” Laws’ summary continued. “[San Juan County] is just finishing up research to hand over to the state of Utah and then the case will be in the state’s hands entirely.”
In 2012, Utah sued the federal government on behalf of San Juan County for rights of way to more than 4,200 miles of what they argued were historic roads in the county, though Recapture Canyon wasn’t included.
Despite the judge consolidating San Juan County’s Recapture Canyon claim with the state’s already extensive RS 2477 suit in May 2018, Howard continued billing the county to conduct interviews and complete other research to hand over to the attorney general’s office that could be used in a future trial.
Last year, Lyman called Howard’s work a “victory” because of the state’s agreement to take on the claim as part of its larger case. It was, he said, “worth every dime.”
13-month pause in billings
Howard submitted bills every few months throughout that period and totals ranged from $2,500 to $37,000. The last charge in the inventory was Nov. 30, 2018, three days after Laws first agreed to compile an inventory in the wake of Maryboy and Grayeyes’ election.
Howard’s pattern of billing changed drastically after that date. He did not submit another invoice to the county until Dec. 5, 2019 — the whopping $94,000 charge for 13 months of work, bringing Howard’s total cost to the county to $440,000.
Laws acknowledged in a recent email interview that by the time he prepared the inventory, “the county had already incurred over $42,000 of the ultimate $94,000 from 2019.”
But, Laws said, the 13-month lag between billings did not strike him as unusual. “I don’t look so much at the frequency of the bills as I do the work completed in the bills for accuracy and activity level.” The county attorney added that Howard’s overall activity slowed in 2019 compared with the previous year and a large portion of the payment was disbursed to subcontractors.
“I was always very much under the impression that because it had been folded [into the state’s case] we were done paying entirely,” Everitt said. “It was never a question.”
Request for a bailout
Maryboy said he had several conversations about Recapture Canyon with Lyman and Laws in 2019, but, like Everitt, he was under the impression the case was essentially over.
“I just don’t feel that I was given enough information to say that, ‘OK, well, let’s come up with the money and pay the bill,’” Maryboy said. “Every case should be settled, but there’s things out there that just kind of surprise you, and I don’t like that.”
Laws said the commissioners “were educated about this case” when he gave them the inventory in April, and they never requested a follow-up report. If the commissioners had asked him to end Howard’s contract, Laws continued, he would have advised against it, “considering how much had been completed on the matter and how close it was to being finished.”
Grayeyes was unfamiliar with the details of the Recapture Canyon lawsuit and the $94,000 charge, but he said he recalls agreeing to let Howard finish his work since it was an “ongoing case.”
Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican who has served on the County Commission for over a decade, said he was not concerned by the large bill in December nor by the big gap between invoices. “There was still some work to do, I guess,” he said.
The state assistance requested must be reviewed by the Utah attorney general’s office to determine whether the expenses advance a state interest and the costs are “reasonable.”
Neither Howard nor Laws replied when asked whether Howard is still billing the county.