Saturday, February 19, 2011

Lawmakers Look to Rein in State’s Legal Bills

Legislation approved by a House committee this week could ultimately reduce runaway legal costs for state government.
Rep. Mark McCullough
"When millions of taxpayer dollars are being expended on private law firms, the public should have confidence that those expenditures are legitimate and that contracts are not a sweetheart deal for a politically connected law firm," said state Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa. "The reforms contained in my legislation will provide greater safeguards against such potential waste of public money."
House Bill 1223, by McCullough, would create the "Legal Services Reform Act." Under the proposed law, state agencies would have to gain the approval by the Office of the Attorney General for all outside attorney contracts.
If an agency receives permission to seek outside counsel, the contract would then have to go through a Request For Proposal (RFP) process.
In addition, all outside attorney contracts would have to be posted online on the agency’s website within four months. Under current law, contracts of $20,000 and less were exempt from public posting requirements.
"The intent of this bill is to return legal representation of the agencies back to the attorney general’s office, where it was originally vested and intended to reside – not with contract lawyers," McCullough said. "That authority has gradually eroded over the years due to agencies asking for and getting statutory exemptions, and the price tag associated with those outside attorneys has continued to climb."
McCullough, an attorney, previously worked in the Civil Division of the Illinois Attorney General’s office. His role in that office was to defend a variety of state agencies against a wide range of claims.
In recent years, he noted Oklahoma has been criticized by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial noting the lack of transparency in the state’s hiring of private attorneys.
"I know from my own experience that the vast majority of claims filed against an agency can, or could be handled by the agency’s attorney of record – the Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General," McCullough said. "And in those cases where outside counsel is necessary, we should have a transparent process that prevents political influence from impacting a hiring decision."
House Bill 1223 passed out of the House Government Modernization Committee this week. It now proceeds to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
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