Report: San Juan County spent $500K on reducing Bears Ears

Receipts from ’17 showed high spending on attorneys

San Juan County hired a New Orleans-based law firm in late 2016 to fight against President Barack Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument and later to lobby for the monument’s reduction, as originally reported by The Salt Lake Tribune.

According to documents obtained by The Tribune, the county paid $485,600 to Davillier Law Group in 2016 and 2017 to research monument reductions and to prepare documents to send to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The spending equated to roughly 9% of the county’s 2017 tax revenue.

The Tribune reported that San Juan County spent more than $2 million on outside legal counsel from 2016 to 2018, costs that spanned six lawsuits and contributed significantly to the county’s general fund deficit of $2.4 million at the end of 2018. The size of the deficit had increased 50% from the year prior.

According to The Tribune, George Wentz, the Davallier attorney supervising the legal services, worked with consultants to set up a meeting among all three San Juan County commissioners – two are no longer there – and Zinke in Washington, D.C., in April 2017.

The closed-door meeting sparked an Open and Public Meetings Act lawsuit by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. The case was dismissed, but SUWA appealed and opening briefs were filed before the Utah Supreme Court on July 18.

Wentz and his associates charged $500 per hour for services, including travel time. Documents obtained by The Tribune showed that Wentz recorded 17 hours of work (including 5.5 hours of travel) on Jan. 27, 2017, charging $8,285 in total for the day.

Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican who has sat on the San Juan County Commission for 15 years, reportedly said to The Tribune, in response to a description of the charges, “That’s ridiculous.”

“I had no idea that was going on,” Adams reportedly said. The Tribune said he later recalled the county breaking off ties with Davillier after a discussion about the firm’s rates.

Billing receipts from Davillier indicate that the firm stopped charging San Juan County for Bears Ears lobbying in April 2017, though it continued working with the county on other legal matters.