Mixed feelings about bill to curb GovGuam's legal expenses - KUAM.com-KUAM News: On Air. Online. On Demand.

Mixed feelings about bill to curb GovGuam's legal expenses

by Ken Quintanilla

Guam - In the past decade, taxpayers have footed the bill for millions in legal fees to private law firms representing Govguam agencies.  Today there was mixed testimony on a bill aimed at curbing the legal expenses throughout the government.  

Five years ago, Vice Speaker B.J. Cruz introduced legislation that took a stand against what he believes is excessive legal billing. Due to opposition from the private bar, the measure was never passed. A handful of years later and the vice speaker has again proffered another attempt. "This year, it's become clear that we are running considerable amount of money in attorney's fees," he said.

Bill 180 once again aims to put the brake on excessive legal billing specifically requiring agencies to hire unclassified in-house counsel in lieu of contracting legal services through private attorneys for no more than $125,000 unless a special need exists. In fact Cruz says it was the Guam International Airport Authority's legal fees of over $800,000 back in 2008 that first prompted his original legislation. In preparing for today's public hearing, Cruz sent a FOIA request to all the agencies on their billings.

"And much to my surprise and shocked I got a FOIA response from the Airport that had received billings in excess of $1.29 million almost $1.3 million in attorney fees just for this fiscal year," he said.

Today, Guam Memorial Hospital chief financial officer Alan Ulrich testified that for several years, GMH has posted the recruitment of an unclassified attorney in which only one person has applied. "I support the use of legal counsel provided through the Attorney General's Office. GMHA budgeted $360,000 for legal fees in its Fiscal Year 2014 budget. It appears that GMHA would incur less legal expense through use of the Attorney General's staff per Bill 180-32."

Chief deputy attorney general Phil Tydingco meanwhile spoke on amending some of the language in the bill, saying, "The current language is in our opinion, we think in order, for if the Legislature's intent is to provide for the employment of unclassified in-house counsel, then there should be findings that include the impracticability to be consistent with the Hauser Decision otherwise there will be that issue."

The Hauser Decision requires that there should be no unclassified in-house counsel unless the Legislature or AG makes impracticability findings which he further states isn't that difficult to do.

Bill 180 came at the wake of Cruz's concerns over what he called "exorbitant" legal fees at the port authority.

Today, Port GM Joanne Brown testified against the bill saying the port's ability to immediately receive assistance from a private law firm actually led to the uncovering of wide spread abuse and corruption by former port employees of the Workers Compensation Program.

Terminating the use of a private law firm in the midst of these and other cases, she believes will send the wrong message.

She further adds the AG is actually involved in the procurement of its legal services from a private firm already.

The Public Utilities Commission along with the airport also testified in opposition of Bill 180.  

The Guam Election Commission meanwhile requested to be exempted from Bill 180 saying the nature and timing of the work of the GEC does not lend itself to in-house legal counsel.

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