SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A small county in southeastern Utah paid a consulting firm nearly $500,000 to lobby against the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument and for the downsizing of it after it was created, according to newly released public records.
San Juan County paid New Orleans-based Davillier Law Group $485,600 in 2016-2017 to prepare information packets sent to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, The Salt Lake Tribune report ed.
Davillier also researched how the creation of the monument would affect uranium mining in the area and if a president could rescind a monument based on national security concerns related to the uranium, the documents show.
The county overpaid $109,500 for one bill that was charged twice, which is now going to be repaid.
Davillier attorneys charged $500 an hour and sometimes their bills included air travel. On one day, Davillier attorney George Wentz billed for 17 hours of work, including 5½ hours of plane travel.
“That’s ridiculous,” county Commissioner Bruce Adams said about the types of charges. “I had no idea that was going on.”
Adams is a longtime Republican county commissioner who opposed the monument. He said he remembers the commissioners cutting ties with Davallier after they discussed the firm’s rates.
Wentz, who supervised the project, declined comment when the Tribune reached him by phone. An email and a phone message left at Davillier offices on Monday by The Associated Press were not immediately returned.
President Barack Obama created the monument in 2016 after years of lobbying by Native American groups who asked for more protections on what they consider sacred lands that are home to ancient cliff dwellings and other artifacts.
A year later, President Donald Trump downsized it by about 85% following a review of 27 national monuments by Zinke. Trump earned cheers from Republican leaders in Utah.
Lawsuits challenging the shrinkage of the lawsuit are pending. The U.S. government last week issued its final management plan for the downsized monument, which allows off-road vehicles access to archaeologically sensitive land while protecting others and keeps most of the monument open for hunting, fishing and target shooting.
Former county Commissioner Phil Lyman, who held office during the Davillier consulting period, said in response to the records that “lawyers are expensive.” He said the county had to defend itself against attacks from well-funded environmental groups and outdoor retail companies pushing for the creation of the monument.
Another fellow county commissioner at the time, Kelly Pehrson, echoed Lyman’s reasoning about the importance of the county defending itself and said in an email, “George Wentz had a whole team of lobbyists working for him.”
Davillier is the same firm that came under fire for lavish spending when the state of Utah hired it in 2014 to prepare a lawsuit that would attempt to force the U.S. government to hand over control of federal lands that make up about two-thirds of the state.
That lawsuit has never been filed, and Davallier had to reimburse $6,000 after a probe found the group had expensed things like first-class airfare, luxury hotels and alcohol that appeared to violate contracts.
Richard Piatt, spokesman for the Utah attorney general’s office, declined to say how much the state has paid Davillier for the work on the lawsuit or provide an update on the status of the lawsuit. He said only that Davillier consults the state on public lands issues on an as-needed basis.
The state set aside $2 million for the project.