Friday, March 18, 2011

House Votes to Reform State Legal Services

House lawmakers voted yesterday to reform the way the state handles legal services, particularly the hiring of outside attorneys, in an effort to ultimately reduce legal costs for state government.

Rep. Mark McCullough
"In recent years, Oklahoma government has come under the spotlight for the millions of taxpayer dollars expended on private law firms," said state Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa. "This legislation will give the public greater confidence that future expenditures of that type are legitimate and that contracts were not awarded as a sweetheart deal for politically connected law firms. The reforms contained in this legislation provide improved 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 Office of the Attorney General is where state agencies’ legal representation was originally vested, and this bill returns that power to the office – not with contract lawyers," McCullough said. "Throughout the years as agencies were granted exemptions to hire outside firms, we’ve seen the price tag associated for legal services skyrocket."

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 the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 64-34 vote today. It now goes to the state Senate.
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