Florida spent $240M on lawyers

Redacción Agencias | 3/14/2017, 7:27 a.m.
Florida spent $240M on lawyers
El gobernador Rick Scott | Foto Cortesía

Gov. Rick Scott and other top Florida Republicans frequently complain about government spending, but they have quietly spent more than $237 million on private lawyers to advance and defend their agendas, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Florida taxpayers also have been forced to reimburse nearly $16 million for their opponents' private attorney fees. That means an overall $253 million has been spent on legal fights in the last six years, including a water war with Georgia and losing battles to test welfare recipients for drugs, trim the state's voter registration lists and ban companies that do business with Cuba from bidding on government contracts.

"A quarter of a billion dollars is a gosh lot of money," said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed group that scrutinizes state spending.

Much of the state's legal spending doesn't show up in the normal process of assembling the state's $82 billion budget.

Attorney General Pam Bondi oversees a legal budget of nearly $309 million a year that helps pay for 450 state lawyers, but all that in-house legal firepower hasn't stopped state leaders from hiring private attorneys. And no one in state government is closely tracking what their hourly rates add up to.

"We do not have that information and are unaware of a way to capture expenditures for the purchase of outside legal services that would not entail an exhaustive search of documents," said Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi.

The Associated Press came up with the figure by analyzing budget documents and the results of public records requests.

The AP review found that Florida has spent more than $237 million on outside lawyering since 2011, a figure that averages to nearly $40 million a year, plus nearly $16 million reimbursing private attorney fees on opposing sides.

Hiring private counsel in expenditures that fall outside the normal budget process seems common in state governments around the country, though perhaps not on the same scale as during the Scott administration.

New York has spent more than $86 million since 2012, or about $17 million a year, on outside lawyering, according to that state's comptroller. California's Democratic leaders recently approved payments of $25,000 a month to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm to defend the state's interests against President Donald Trump's policies.

In Florida, it was the soaring cost of the state's water war against Georgia — more than $41 million in the last 18 months alone— that started to raise eyebrows when the Department of Environmental Protection sought more money in January.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and House budget chief, called the department's legal spending a "runaway train."

His response when told that the overall state tab for private legal fees is about a quarter-billion dollars? "Insane," Trujillo said.

Trujillo said "nobody is disputing" that defending Florida's water rights is important, but "as taxpayers and constituents, we have the right to ask: 'Is it necessary, are we overpaying?'"

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who ordered a legislative review, was even more blunt: "We are getting gouged, and that needs to be fixed."