Idaho’s federal lands interim committee has hired outside legal counsel even though the state’s own attorney general’s office has questioned the legality of Idaho taking control of federally managed public lands.
The committee is relying on the Legislature’s Legal Defense Fund to cover the private attorney’s costs. Use of the fund requires the approval of House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg.
The panel, which has a $20,000 budget to cover travel reimbursements and other expenses, hired Boise attorney William Myers, who served as chief legal officer at the U.S. Department of Interior during the George W. Bush administration. Myers’ law firm also helped provide legal counsel on revamping Idaho’s wolf management process and the sage grouse management plan to prevent the bird from being listed as an endangered species.
While speaking to a Montana legislative committee earlier this month, task force co-chair and Republican state Sen. Chuck Winder said that Myers was brought in because they needed local expertise to help guide them through the political process of trying to gain control of Idaho’s 34 million acres of federal public lands.
“We’ve hired legal counsel from outside of state government primarily because we didn’t feel as the Legislature that we were getting the help that we needed from the attorney general’s office, once they determined the legal prospects of the case against the federal government on this didn’t have much merit,” Winder of Boise said. “They didn’t give us a whole lot of imagination or creativity on what the political solutions might be. So we’ve gone to an expert attorney … to use his background and expertise to help us with this process.”
Winder later told The Associated Press that he felt Myers had more knowledge on federal land than the AG’s office issues because of Myers’ background of working at the Department of Interior.
Committee member and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said she was disappointed the panel was not informed that Myers was being considered before his hiring.
“I think it was done rather hasty without letting the rest of the committee know,” she said. “But they’re using taxpayer money. I would have preferred for them to be more transparent.”
The legislative Legal Defense Fund was created in 2012 to pay for outside legal expenses one year after lawmakers rejected a plan to set a legislative counsel office rather than rely on opinions from the attorney general. The fund was given $200,000 to be split between the House and Senate.
As of the end of May, the Senate side had paid Myers’ law firm $4,879 but had two invoices it had not yet paid totaling $16,002. The House has paid Myers $20,881.
The committee was formed in 2013 after lawmakers signed off on legislation demanding that the government “transfer title” to Idaho’s public lands. Idaho is one of several Western states studying options on taking control of public lands.
The committee will make a final recommendation in 2015.