The fight for who should retain ownership of Utah’s public lands took an ugly turn on Capitol Hill last Wednesday, as Democratic lawmakers called out their Republican counterparts in a spirited and testy exchange at the meeting of the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands.
Commission members Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) and Representative Joel Briscoe (Democrat – Salt Lake City) both criticized GOP leaders for refusing to share information related to a potential lawsuit to transfer federal lands to the state with them.
“It’s not a priesthood meeting. It is a public hearing, it’s the public’s money, and we have a right to know all the information. It’s a state issue. We’ve got to get out of this mentality of ‘All the information will be detrimental.’ I’m saying this is a good example of what is happening all too often in state government. Just give Joel and I the information, and then have your vote. You know how it’s going to go anyway. Stop this barrier of the people knowing what’s going on when we’re paying lawyers $1,754 an hour. We want to know what the hell is going on. We’re on the commission. I don’t think it’s asking too much,” said Dabakis.
The information in question is of that furnished by the New Orleans, Louisiana-based Davaillier Law Group, whom the state of Utah retained to determine whether suing the federal government to return ownership of public land would be a worthwhile venture. In the end, the law firm concluded that Utah has a case and that it would be willing to continue carrying the case. The lawsuit is expected to cost upwards of $14 million. Davaillier received more than $600,00 in compensation for its services.
Representative Keven Stratton (Republican – Orem) contends that only he and Senator David Hinkins (Republican – Orangeville), as the commission’s co-chairmen, should be allowed full access. Waving attorney-client privilege is problematic because also included in the report are potential defenses and counterarguments that could be used by the defendant (i.e., the federal government), Stratton told the commission.
“It is morally reprehensible, from my perspective, to use attorney-client privilege as a barrier to public officials who are making an important policy decision,” said Dabakis. “I call upon our chairs to open all information before the state commits to spending so much tax dollars. This is America, it’s not the Republican Caucus. We need that information; it’s fair, it’s just. Let the votes fall where they may, but stop hiding this information.” The audience erupted in applause and had to be silenced.
Representative Mel Brown (Republican – Coalville) feels that the commission should continue on its present course and not reveal any legal strategies before the matter goes to court. “We’ve been 120 years as a state being totally subjected by the federal government. We can’t manage our state like we should, we can’t develop it like we should, and we can’t impose educational benefits and other benefits to our citizens like we should,” said Brown. “We need to cease to be treated like a second-class state. We’re basically treated like a territory because of the presence of that land. Let’s decide if we can become a state on an equal footing with the rest of the states or if we continue to be subject to our federal landlords.”
Representative Mike Noel (Republican – Kanab) concurred with Brown’s statement. “Individuals from the minority party want to disrupt this process any way they can, whether it deals with disclosing our lawsuit so that others will have it. That’s what they want to do,” Noel told the commission.
Briscoe called for a point of order, accusing Noel of making personal attacks. “I think it’s casting an aspersion. We have been instructed in the House of Representatives not to assume or not to make aspersions upon the intent of another person. I don’t on yours,” said Briscoe. “I understand the rules, Mr. Chairman. I understand the rules very, very well. If you want to overrule me, that’s your prerogative. I am responding to aspersions that were presented by the minority party of what our party is trying to do. I’m responding to those specifically,” Noel shot back. “Do not allow them to see our plan, see our strategy. I don’t want to see the strategy. I want to make sure the strategy works. To just hand them to our playbook before the game even starts is ridiculous, so stick to our guns,” Noel concluded.
Briscoe subsequently made a motion to require the disclosure of all legal information from the Davaillier Law Group to any committee member who requests it. “We have a right; we’re elected officials. I’m representing 100,000 people and to say that the Republican President of the Senate and the Republican Speaker of the House and the two Republican Chairs get access to that information, it seems to me that attorney-client privilege is being invoked only so that one side of the aisle doesn’t get the information. And, gentlemen, that is wrong,” Dabakis said in favor of the motion.
Senator Scott Jenkins (Republican – Plain City) then made a substitute motion requiring all parties who receive information to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Dabakis opposed the substitute motion on the grounds that having the information and not being able to divulge it would be unacceptable, especially if any wrongdoing is found. “I cannot accept the information and be gagged. The purpose of having that information, this isn’t the CIA and drones, this is the public’s money,” said Dabakis.
Hinkins accused Dabakis of making up false accusations with regard to his bringing up the possibility that there might be wrongdoing. “You don’t know that. That’s just an accusation you’re making. You don’t know that. You shouldn’t make accusations like that. You know better than that. You’re in a public meeting. You shouldn’t say it in public like this. Fabricate it. Sit and fabricate everything you’ve done. You’ve fabricated this whole thing, and I’m sick of it,” said Hinkins. “Would you answer what these PR firms spent over $100,000 doing? I don’t know and I can’t find out,” said Dabakis.
The substitute motion failed, with only Jenkins voting in favor. The original motion subsequently failed on a party-line 2-5 vote.