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Utah lawmakers scrutinize spending after bar tab and more billed by public lands commission

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah’s fight to sue the federal government over control of federal lands is estimated to cost $14 million. The expense has been debated back and forth, but there is little debate over another expense charged to the state: $21 for beer.

"Can't put a bar tab on a bill and expect the legislature to pay for it,” said Representative Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City and the House Minority Assistant Whip.

That bar tab, $1,300 for a three-night stay at the Grand American Hotel, and $384 for four meals are all expenses being called out by the Washington D.C. non-profit Campaign for Accountability.

The expenses were all billed to the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, which is the group spearheading the state’s effort in the lawsuit against the federal government.

"We are checking in to those very things right now to see if we've been over-billed on some of these,” said Utah Senator Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.

Both Jenkins and Briscoe sit on the commission. Though they differ on whether or not Utah should pursue its effort to sue the federal government (Briscoe is against the suit, Jenkins is in favor) both agree: Someone may have dropped the ball in how the commission is paying its bills.

"We really should be under scrutiny all the time,” Jenkins said.

"Anytime public money is spent, there should be an audit,” Briscoe said.

The bills tie back to lawyers and public relations consultants contracted by the commission to evaluate the lawsuit. Both Briscoe and Jenkins say the commission co-chairs (Senator David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, and Representative Keven Stratton, R-Orem) should be checking each expenditure along with legislative staff.

"We need to find out if there was appropriate oversight over some of these expenditures,” Briscoe said.

The money, if paid out inappropriately, can be recouped. The various lawyers and consultants bill the commission on a monthly basis. The next round of bills could see deductions for any over-payments.

"The taxpayers of Utah deserve an explanation for how their money is being spent,” said Anne Weismann, Executive Director of the Campaign for Accountability, the group that sent the letter raising concerns to the commission.

She said she hopes the spending will be looked at and fixed, saying, if not, the group may look to legal measures for recourse.

Hinkins and Stratton issued a joint statement on the issue Wednesday:

"Questions raised in the media today shouldn’t diminish efforts to investigate the legal feasibility of Utah’s work to manage public lands at a local level, which a majority of Utahns support. We are pleased with the accomplishments of the Commission thus far. Based upon expenses to date, we anticipate spending less than half of our allocated budget for the first phase of this endeavor.

A politically-motivated letter, released today by a partisan advocacy group from Washington D.C., raises three concerns about payments made by the commission for outside legal services and communications work.

First, the letter asked questions about certain items billed by Davillier and Strata that may be prohibited by the contract. As in any billing situation, the Commission will seek direct reimbursement or a reduction in future bills to ensure that the state does not pay for prohibited expenses. We will require billing adjustments where warranted and will continue to carefully review and monitor future invoices. Davillier and Strata have worked at a significant discount, as well as performed work without billing. They have also indicated a willingness to reimburse wherever appropriate.

To address the second issue - questions about the accuracy of certain billings - the Commission continues to conduct internal review of all billing, including those identified, and require any necessary revisions.

Third, some have questions about whether certain other expenses are appropriate under the contract. In any contractual relationship, the parties to the contract are in the best position to determine whether they are receiving what each side promised. As Commission chairs, we are satisfied with the overall services and the progress Davillier and Strata have made.

The Commission established a multi-step process to review, approve and pay the bills. Despite the impression created by some of today’s media coverage, the process was designed to ensure that the Commission received the information and assistance promised by the contracts at a reasonable price. This has generally worked very well. It is more than presumptuous for a partisan group that has publicly stated its opposition to the Commission’s work, to suggest that they can more objectively evaluate whether services provided are what the Commission required."