Idaho taxpayers pay more than $18 million for private lawyers to do state's legal work

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho taxpayers have paid private attorneys more than $18 million in the past three years to do the state's legal work, in large part because the Idaho Attorney General's office doesn't have the staff to handle the caseload.

The Associated Press obtained the payment information through a public-records request to the Idaho State Controller's office. It shows that Idaho government agencies have paid private law firms more than $18 million since fiscal year 2011, including about $3 million for attorneys who serve as administrative hearing officers. The private law firms charge the state anywhere from $125 to more than $400 an hour, compared to the $54 per hour it costs to have one of the state's staff attorneys do the job.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has either asked lawmakers for permission to add staffers to his department or warned them that the state's legal staff is dangerously underfunded every year since 2005. Some state agency heads have voiced their support for expanding his office. Former Idaho State Police Col. Jerry Russell in 2012 asked for an additional full-time deputy attorney general, and Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness in 2011 asked for more deputy attorney generals to handle his agency's legal work.

But some state leaders are comfortable with the current arrangement. Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter quipped at the Idaho Press Club breakfast last week that the solution was for fewer people to sue the state. Staffing has been an issue at the Attorney General's office since before he became governor, Otter said.

"You've got to find a happy medium with what you know you need, and maintain that and supplement it. That's what we've done," he said. "Have we gone too far to the conservative side? ... I like to know that when we don't need them, we don't have to pay them."

Some outside attorneys will always be needed, Wasden said, because sometimes his office has a conflict of interest on a specific case or because a case requires expertise in a highly specialized area of law. But the state doesn't track the reasons why outside attorneys are hired, so it's impossible to tell how many of the more expensive private attorneys are being paid because there aren't enough state employees to do the work.

Wasden suspects that total is high, however. His office has undergone a net reduction of 15.5 full-time positions since the Great Recession, and demand for legal services has increased, Wasden said during a recent interview with the AP. His annual budget is about $18 million, a reduction of more than $1.5 million since 2009.

"In the legal world, you don't always get to choose how much you do," Wasden said. "You get sued, you have to respond and you have to litigate the case. The only alternative is to write a check."

A tracking system to show just how much work is being farmed out because of short-staffing might be helpful, but it also might be "a lot of wasted effort, to put it bluntly," Wasden said. "We'd be spending a lot of staff time and a lot of effort for information that doesn't get us anywhere."

Rep. Maxine Bell, a Republican from Jerome and the co-chairwoman of the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said she thinks analysis of the state's contracts is an issue that's floating to the top of legislator's minds right now.

"The whole contract activity that we have engaged in, some of its not been as clean and effective as we would have liked," Bell said. "This may be a part of that, and there may be a place where we could see getting a few more attorneys versus what we're currently doing, a better mix ... There's probably a better way."

State agencies, counties and lawmakers sometimes ask for help from Wasden's office to prosecute complicated criminal cases or handle other legal duties. Frequently, Wasden said, he has to turn them down because of staffing numbers unless the request falls under one of the core duties of his office required under Idaho law.

"There's a lot of consternation from counties when they want us to represent them or come and investigate something. We try to assist them (but) ... often times they'll come and we simply don't have the resources," Wasden said. "We get those phone calls, 'Why aren't you working our case? Why aren't you helping our county?' "

So far, no lawsuit has gone unchallenged because of staffing woes, Wasden said, but turnover in some units of his office is high and morale suffers as caseloads climb.

"We're victims of our own success. People here are motivated by the working for the public interest as opposed to making lots of money. I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm certain that people were working hours that they weren't writing down" during particularly busy periods, Wasden said.