Amid intense questioning from lawmakers Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott's office withdrew a request that taxpayers foot the bill for an additional $13 million in legal fees in the ongoing litigation battle between Florida and Georgia over access to water in the Apalachicola-Chatahoochee-Flint River basin.
The withdrawal came hours before the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, which oversees agency budgets, was expected to vote on the request by the Department of Environmental Protection for the additional fees in the 16-year water war that has already cost taxpayers nearly $72 million in legal fees.
Since 2001, the state has been billed $97.8 million on the water wars, according to an analysis by the House Appropriations Committee and first reported in the Herald/Times. It has spent $71.9 million to date.
Nearly $54.4 million of the cost was spent in the last two years after Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and the court appointed a special master to resolve the dispute. Florida sued Georgia in 2013 claiming the state’s excessive use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers was endangering Florida’s oyster industry and harming the economy of North Florida.
Last week, legislators and budget staff started raising questions about the legal fees. The Department of Environmental Regulation, which handles the legal contract, want $17.1 million more in taxpayer funds, bringing the total cost for the year to about $41 million. Two days later, DEP Secretary Jon Steverson announced he was retiring.
Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said he hopes the department will renegotiate the contract rates with the lead law firm.
"Almost everything in life's negotiable,'' he said Tuesday. "There costs going forward. It's not the end and the ship has sailed so we really need to control that going forward."
According to a spreadsheet obtained by the Herald/Times, the numbers showed that the lead lawyers, Washington-based Latham Watkins, would be paid $35.9 million between 2015 and 2017.
Foley Lardner, the Florida firm where Steverson’s predecessor, Hershel Vinyard, works and where Steverson is now headed after his Feb. 3 retirement, would be paid $2.6 million over the same time. Two other firms also were paid lesser amounts: $1 million to Blankenau and $966,000 to Carlton.
The records also show that Latham Watkins charged the state for 32 to 35 full-time legal staff for 40 hours a week over four months. The firm also charged significantly more than the other firms for lawyers of comparable experience.
For example, while Foley Lardner charged an hourly rate of $220 for junior associates — those with five years or less experience — Latham Watkins charged $395 an hour for lawyers with three years or less experience and $575 an hour for lawyers with 3 to 10 years experience. Partners at Latham charged $825 an hour, compared to Foley’s partners, who charged $450 an hour.
Expert witness and consulting costs totaled $11 million over the 16 years, half of it in the last two years.
"We need to look more carefully at those bills and the process before we approve them,'' said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. He said he agreed with the decision to postpone a vote on the request. "I hesitate to cast aspersions on things I know nothing about and this is one of the those that I really don't know much about."
He said he has budget staff reviewing it and he hopes to have more answers by the next meeting.
Gov. Rick Scott, whose budget office approved the request to pay the increased legal costs, would not comment on the soaring costs except to say that the legal case has been complex.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose solicitor general represents the state in the litigation, said she did not have any idea the fees would be as high as they have been but added: "Having said that though, this is very complex, specialized litigation, highly complex."
She said the legislators were asking "very valid questions with the mounting legal bills" but added that "the money is owed, and I think going forward, the legal bills need to be discussed with the House. … DEP will be the ones paying."
Bondi defended hiring the Latham law firm because of the specialized nature of the litigation but, she added, "I cannot say more than that. I cannot comment on the case because the special master has made it very clear that we're not going to comment on any pending litigation."
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report.
Photo: Oyster family on the Apalachicola River by Patrick Farrell of the Miami Herald