Sunday, June 13, 2010

Curtain Falls on State Attorney Sunshine Act

OKLAHOMA CITY (June 10, 2010) – Legislation that would require greater transparency when state agencies hire private attorneys will not become law this year, state Rep. Mark McCullough said today.

"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, R-Sapulpa. "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."

Senate Bill 1379, by McCullough and state Sen. Anthony Sykes, creates 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.

"I supported this bill in committee and on the floor and will do so again next session until this common sense effort becomes law," said state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. "Currently there is too much opportunity for abuse and this legislation would open the process to much needed scrutiny."

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.

"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.
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