Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Building (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Buoyed largely by a status change in Georgia’s longrunning interstate water dispute, the state government’s bill for private attorneys dropped a whopping 12.6 percent in the past fiscal year.

The state spent $44,997,972 on special assistant attorneys general, also known as SAAGs, in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018, according to recently released state Law Department figures. That figure is down from the $51,472,735 spent in the prior fiscal year and the $50,351,809 in the fiscal year before that.

Prior to the significant uptick in costs tied to the “water wars” with Alabama and Florida over the management of the Chatahoochee River Basin, the SAAG costs came in around $36 million and $33 million in fiscal years 2015 and 2014, respectively.

“The amount the state spends on SAAGs varies annually and will fluctuate based on the volume, type, and complexity of cases being handled each year,” a spokesperson for state Attorney General Chris Carr said in an email. “One of the reasons for the decrease in SAAG spending from FY 17-FY 18 is changes in spending on the Florida v. Georgia case due to the case being in different stages of litigation.”

In his role as head of the state Law Department, the AG can be viewed as the managing partner of one of Atlanta’s largest law firms. Carr manages at least 455 lawyers, when the number of Law Department staff attorneys, about 150, is combined with the number of SAAGs, 305 in the past fiscal year.

The true number of SAAGs, however, is actually higher. The state hires SAAGs under one attorney’s name, but multiple lawyers typically work under each official SAAG title.

Funding for SAAGs comes from the state agencies that use them, not the Law Department, although the costs are administered by and reflected in the Law Department’s budget. In most cases, the state is paying SAAGs at below market value.

Dale “Bubba” Samuels, for example, says he charges a reduced rate of $200 an hour for his SAAG work, which is spread among the four lawyers and paralegal in his Buford firm. Samuels is one of three SAAGs who brought in more than $1 million from the state last fiscal year through a caseload that supported the Georgia Department of Transportation and included title work, as well as condemnation litigation.

Jeff Gaba, working closely with his partner Richard Calhoun, also earned more than $1 million in SAAG work last fiscal year. Like Samuels, much of his caseload supported the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Between June 2017 and June 2018, the pair of lawyers say they had nine active GDOT projects, as well as 45 to 50 condemnation cases, six of which went to trial.

“We do quite a bit for the state, and they’re very, very large projects,” Gaba said. “Because we have five lawyers and three paralegals [doing the work] we can handle the very big projects.”

Added Calhoun, who handles the condemnation litigation: “I don’t know what the other SAAGs are doing, but five or six trials in one year is a pretty busy schedule.”

In addition to the GDOT work, Gaba’s caseload supported the Georgia Lottery Corp., Department of Natural Resources and Board of Regents, the AG spokesperson said.

The final SAAG to earn more than $1 million last fiscal year is Craig Primis, the Washington, D.C.-based Kirkland & Ellis partner who represented Georgia in the water wars. Primis could not be reached for comment about his SAAG work and fees.