Curtain falls on state attorney Sunshine Act

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 10-Jun-2010

Legislation that would require greater transparency when state agencies hire private attorneys will not become law this year. State Rep. Mark McCullough today (Thursday, June 11) expressed his disappointment in the outcome.

“This effort did not receive a final vote this year, which is unfortunate, because I believe the public should know when and how their tax money is used by state agencies to hire private attorneys,” said state Rep. Mark McCullough, a Sapulpa Republican. “I believe our current process is lacking and does not encourage an arms-length transaction between agencies and the firms they hire, which is why I will continue this fight in the 2011 session.”

In related news, the legislation was scrutinized in modest detail at a Wednesday night forum for those seeking to become Oklahoma’s next attorney general.

Senate Bill 1379, by McCullough and state Sen. Anthony Sykes, a Moore Republican, would have created the Private Attorney Retention Sunshine Act and would require state agencies hiring private attorneys to use a competitive, public process anytime the contracts are greater than $5,000.

Under the bill, state agencies would be required to put the work through a “request for proposal” process.  The legislation requires the agencies to post the proposal in a conspicuous location on their website, along with a statement that the agency will provide a copy of the request for proposal to any person requesting one.

Information about the lawyers or firm awarded the contract, including services to be performed and projected total payments, would also have to be posted online.

Under the bill, the governor would have 30 days to review all agency contracts with private attorneys that exceed $500,000 and recommend changes to the proposed contract.  If the agency or agent chooses not include all the governor’s recommendations, agency officials must state why they chose not to adopt them.

The legislation also requires private attorneys to provide a statement of the hours worked on the case, expenses incurred, the aggregate fee amount, and a breakdown as to the hourly rate based on hours worked divided into fee recovered, less expenses. Under the bill, attorneys could not charge the state more than $1,000 per hour.

McCullough noted the measure was touted by Research Institute for Economic Development, an organization that promotes economic growth through the evaluation of business, industry and economic growth issues considered by the Oklahoma Legislature.

The bill was also based on model legislation developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonpartisan organization of state lawmakers that favors federalism and conservative public policy solutions.

McCullough also noted that Oklahoma received unwanted national attention last year when the Wall Street Journal published an editorial criticizing the lack of transparency in the state’s hiring of private attorneys.

According to The Oklahoman, state agencies spent over $24 million dollars on private attorneys over a three-year period.

At the state Attorney General candidate forum at Oklahoma City University on Wednesday evening (June 10), the three men who this week filed to contend for the state’s “top cop” position took positions on various objectives in McCullough’s legislation – varying in some important details.

Former state Sen. Scott Pruitt of Broken Arrow, seeking the Republican nomination for A.G. in the July 27 primary, said he supported options for the state government “to retain outside counsel on a limited basis.” However, he was critical of the hefty fees some state law firms compiled in the tobacco litigation 1999-2000. Pruitt said the $9 million that went to outside counsel last year is “too much.” He also promised that, if elected, “I won’t need legislation” to shift outside counsel practice, as “I will do that voluntarily.”

Jim Priest, an Oklahoma City attorney who is the Democratic nominee in November, said lawmakers should “be careful” before making any changes in this area. He was more supportive of the status quo, saying, “The work of the state could not be done without outside lawyers.” He said most attorneys on the list to get such fees could earn more in exclusively private practice. He promised scrutiny of the fees.

Ryan Leonard, an Oklahoma City attorney who is contending with Pruitt for the Republican nod, said he supported the legislation that fell short this year. He asserted the $24-25 million spent on outside counsel in the last three years is too much.

McCullough, commenting on the demise of his legislation, continued, “Because outside attorneys are hired so often in Oklahoma, it is troubling that the public is not allowed to closely scrutinize those contracts,” McCullough said. “I believe the Sunshine Act would reduce the chance for the misuse of taxpayer funds to enrich politically connected law firms and I will continue to fight for this important reform.”

McCullough has requested a legislative study that would allow lawmakers to look at attorney staffing in state agencies. If approved, that study will likely be conducted later this year.

NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.