RALEIGH — Days before House Republican leaders announced plans to introduce a controversial voter ID bill, they hired a lawyer.
Now the same outside law firm that was paid $55,591 to help draft the bill is poised to make hundreds of thousands of dollars more defending the law in court.
The arrangement, outlined in newly released documents, is fueling critics’ concerns about how much GOP leaders are paying outside attorneys to do work typically reserved for the legislature’s staff lawyers and the attorney general’s office.
Attorney General Roy Cooper and Democratic lawmakers call the spending on outside attorneys to draft and defend the election law an unnecessary expense – one compounded by Gov. Pat McCrory, who hired his own outside attorney to fight the lawsuit.
The critics point to the still-mounting legal bills in the lawsuit against the new political districts. The latest tally shows taxpayers paid more than $1.6 million to Ogletree Deakins through the end of October after Republican legislative leaders hired the law firm to help the state attorney general defend the redistricting maps.
And legislative leaders are poised to hire more outside attorneys in the future after approving a law to give the General Assembly the ability to intervene in lawsuits challenging state laws. Republican lawmakers said the move is necessary because Cooper, a Democrat, may not best represent their interests, especially given his vocal opposition to the new election law and the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
The cost for outside attorneys to draft and defend the state’s new elections law already tops $75,000, according to state records. Four lawsuits are challenging the law, including the provision requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, on the grounds that they impede voting rights and discriminate against minorities.
House Speaker Thom Tillis once again retained Raleigh-based Olgetree Deakins lawyers to do the work. According to a March 1 contractual letter, Olgetree Deakins attorneys Tom Farr, Phil Strach and Michael McKnight were paid $260 to $385 an hour with additional charges for travel, court reporters and other legal expenses.
In an interview, Tillis’ Chief of Staff Chris Hayes said the House wanted the advice of attorneys who specialize in voting rights, given the controversy and lawsuits surrounding other states’ voter ID laws. Even before the law was drafted, opponents promised to sue and began collecting more than a dozen attorneys to push the case, creating the need for extra resources, he said.
“We thought it would be good to have counsel give us an assessment of other states ... and what they have done to comply with the changing landscape of court decisions,” Hayes said.
Lawyers are the ‘best there is’
Ray Starling, the speaker’s general counsel, said the Olgetree Deakins lawyers are the “best there is” when it comes to elections law and worked well with lawmakers on the redistricting case. No other firms were formally considered, and the work was not put to bid, he said.
Farr, Strach and McKnight all specialize in employment law and labor matters, according to the law firm’s website. But Farr has worked on redistricting-related election cases for more than two decades.
Strach’s wife, Kim Westbrook Strach, is the executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections, the agency that will administer the new law.
Farr declined to comment on the case. Kim Strach did not return messages seeking comment.
The firm’s lawyers have donated at least $64,000 to North Carolina political campaigns in recent years with the three Raleigh attorneys donating more than half the money. Most it went to Republican campaigns, according to state campaign finance records. Farr donated $1,000 to Tillis’ U.S. Senate campaign this year and another $1,000 to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s campaign, state and federal records show.
State lawmakers did not appropriate money specifically for legislative legal counsel; the bills are paid from state budget reserves, legislative officials said.
To defend the law, Tillis and Berger signed a new contract with Olgetree Deakins at the end of October that pays them at a higher rate than the previous two cases. The lawyers’ hourly rate ranges from $305 to $405 an hour, but the firm will give the state a 10 percent discount on each month’s bill. Legal expenses are extra.
Even though lawmakers had attorneys, McCrory hired his own in September: Butch Bowers, a South Carolina lawyer who previously represented S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, a key McCrory ally, on ethics charges. He also served as a special counsel on election law in the U.S. Justice Department under President George W. Bush. The governor’s office said McCrory believed he needed his own counsel because he was a named party in the lawsuit.
Bowers will make $360 an hour, a 15 percent discount from his normal $425 rate, according to a contractual letter provided by the governor’s office. McCrory hired Bowers Sept. 20, a month after the first lawsuit was filed but 10 days before the Obama administration announced its challenge.
‘Waste of money’
Starling, Tillis’ counsel, said he expects the legislative counsel to play a more prominent role than Bowers, and the state attorney general’s office will take the lead. He said taxpayers are “not paying full fare twice.”
But Rep. Darren Jackson, a Raleigh Democrat, said he is surprised by the high costs and suggested the lawmakers pay for their own counsel with private money if they don’t want to rely on the attorney general’s office. He worries that the legal bills will only increase as long as Republicans control the legislature and a Democrat holds the attorney general post. “I don’t see how you justify it,” he said. “It just seems like a waste of money to me.”
Jackson also questioned the need to hire an outside attorney to draft the bill, saying the House’s voter ID bill differed little from the voting legislation that Republicans passed the previous year. Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed that bill.
He also is concerned that GOP leaders didn’t put the work to bid, like many state contracts, and the extent to which Republican legislative leaders have become reliant on outside counsel. “We have such highly qualified staff that can do that,” he said. “It’s like they don’t trust the staff they have.”
Cooper’s office has defended a handful of recent cases against laws pushed by Republican lawmakers without the help of outside counsel hired by the legislature.
But Speaker Pro Tem Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex said the attorney general put the lawmakers in this position by speaking out against the election legislation and asking McCrory to veto it. “Roy Cooper simultaneously was sending his lawyers in to tell a federal judge the law is OK while he is sending out emails and making speeches about how bad it is,” Stam said. “Essentially he’s telling a federal judge, ‘I hope my side loses.’ ”
Cooper, who is considering a run for governor in 2016, said Monday he has personally disagreed with other laws that his staff defended successfully in court. Labeling Stam’s accusation “ridiculous,” Cooper also said it’s part of his duty to speak publicly on major public policy issues.
“Judges know the difference between policy arguments and constitutional legal requirements,” he said.
Staff researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.