A directive from the governor to cut state agencies’ spending may crimp the state Law Department’s efforts to bolster its staff and rely less on outside, contracted attorneys.
In late July, Governor Nathan Deal asked state agencies to consider ways to cut their budgets in order to yield about $553 million in savings through June 2014. Roughly half that money would come from higher education and public health budgets and K-12 education funding would be exempt, the Associated Press reported.
“Like everyone else, we have been asked to provide budget requests with options for cuts,” Law Department spokeswoman Lauren Kane said. “Unlike most state agencies, we do not have programs to cut, and essentially all of our non-operating funds are dedicated to salaries. If faced with significant cuts, our only recourse would be either eliminate positions, impose furloughs or freeze vacant positions as they occur.”
If the department does end up reducing the number or hours of in-house lawyers, reliance on special assistant attorneys general would likely increase.
“The office would have less staff available to do the same amount of work,” Kane said. “In order to properly represent our clients, we would be forced to appoint SAAGs to pick up the slack, which is more costly to the state in the long run.”
SAAGs’ payments come out of the budgets for the state departments and agencies that use them, rather than out of the Law Department’s budget.
In fiscal year 2012, which ended June 30, the state spent more than $34.2 million on 340 private, contracted attorneys to work for various departments on issues ranging from transportation projects to Medicaid liens. The 2012 total is a $1 million increase over fiscal year 2011, although still less than the $38 million the state spent on SAAGs in fiscal year 2008.
Washington-based attorney Simon Santiago, a partner at the Nossaman law firm, again was the state’s highest paid SAAG. Santiago, who practices construction litigation, was paid nearly $570,000 in fiscal year 2012 for work he did for the state Department of Transportation. Last fiscal year, he was paid nearly $2.2 million. Law Department records show he charged $395 an hour and $50 an hour for his paralegal and was hired in 2009 by then-Attorney General Thurbert Baker.
The other Top Five highest paid SAAGS in fiscal year 2012 were:
• Clay Long, founding partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge, was paid nearly $569,000. He was hired as a SAAG in 2000 and in fiscal year 2012 worked for the state Department of Natural Resources at $225 an hour.
• John Aldridge Jr., managing partner at Aldridge Connors who specializes in real property law, was paid about $487,000. He was hired in 2010 and in fiscal year 2012 worked for the Georgia Housing and Finance Authority at $175 an hour.
• A. Stephens Clay, a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, was paid about $465,000. He was hired in 2011 and worked for the Georgia Ports Authority at $225 an hour.
• Julius Hulsey, a partner at Hulsey, Oliver & Mahar who specializes in government and corporate law, was paid about $457,000. He was hired in 1982 and in fiscal year 2012 worked for the state Department of Transportation on right-of-way acquisitions at a rate of $125 an hour, plus title and flat fees ranging from $125 to $200.
Attorney General Sam Olens, who took office in January 2011, announced new positions in June to address new responsibilities added last session by the Legislature and to reduce backlogs. Those new responsibilities fall under the Georgia Taxpayer False Claims Act, which took effect on July 1 and established civil penalties for fraud involving government programs and contracts, and the overhauled Open Meetings and Open Records acts, which became effective April 17 and allow the attorney general to seek civil penalties against public offices or elected officials who violate public access requirements.
The top new position is solicitor general, which is filled by Nels Peterson, who originally was Olens’ counsel for legal policy — a position Olens created in 2011. Peterson now is responsible for handling the office’s legislative agenda as well as reviewing and managing the office’s civil appellate litigation.
“Although they [new positions] will not reduce existing SAAG usage, they will prevent news SAAGs from being necessary to address those issues,” Kane said.