Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Iowans to spend up to $435 an hour for Branstad's lawyers

Iowa taxpayers will spend as much as $275 an hour – nearly 3,5 times the going rate - for individual lawyers with Republican ties to defend Gov. Terry Branstad against a lawsuit challenging the closure of 36 state unemployment offices as unconstitutional.

Typically the state's attorney general handles litigation for the state.

However, when outside attorney assistance is necessary the going rate is usually around $80 an hour, Iowa Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald said.

Branstad Tuesday successfully urged other state officials to allow him to hire two lawyers from the Nyemaster, Goode, West, Hansell & O'Brien law firm in Des Moines. Their experience would better serve the state, he said.

Attorney Richard Sapp will cost taxpayers $275 an hour for his work while Ryan Koopmans will cost $160 an hour. Both have GOP ties and have donated money to key Republican leader campaigns, public records show.

The state's Executive Council voted 3 to 1 to allow the hiring. Fitzgerald, the lone Democrat on the council, was the no vote. Branstad, Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and State Auditor David Vaudt - all Republicans - voted yes. Secretary of State Matt Schultz was absent.

Northey and Vaudt both said they voted yes largely because the attorney general's office agreed to step aside to allow outside attorneys handle the case but Fitzgerald said the extra costs are unacceptable.

"This is way over the top," Fitzgerald said. "This is costing the taxpayer outrageously over what the executive council generally approves for outside counsel."

He continued: "It's politics and we're asking the taxpayers to pay a huge cost for a political argument that he (Branstad) wants to make in court."

The lawsuit filed last month by union leader Danny Homan and four Democratic leaders alleges that Branstad violated the state's constitution when he vetoed portions of Senate File 517 that would have prohibited closure of the 36 Iowa Workforce Development offices across the state.

The lawsuit contends Branstad cannot constitutionally veto the provision to keep the offices open unless he also vetoes the money the Legislature designated for that purpose. The legislation passed by lawmakers had used $3 million left over from a business incentive program to run the offices.

"You could keep those offices open for quite a while for $435 an hour," said Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against closing the unemployment offices.

Sapp represented Republican leaders in 2003 when they successfully challenged line-item vetoes by then governor Tom Vilsack to an economic stimulus package. Branstad wanted that "proven track record" back on his team, said Tim Albrecht, the governor's spokesman.

"We wanted to go with a firm that has had success with these kind of cases in the past," Albrecht said.

Koopmans was appointed by Branstad earlier this year to a panel that helps select district court judges. That appointment came under fire when the group "Justice Not Politics" said Koopmans has advocated against Iowa's merit system for selecting judges as vice president of the Iowa Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society. Instead, he supports a system that would give the governor power to select judges, eliminating the commission process, the group said.

Homan declined to comment today.

Iowa Attorney General spokesman Geoff Greenwood said their office would have taken the case.

"We were prepared to defend the case but the governor specifically requested outside counsel and Attorney General Miller agreed to step aside and let the governor choose his own outside counsel," Greenwood said.

By Jason Clayworth

Source: Des Moines Register Staff Blogs

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