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Corcoran appoints two legislators to investigate 'water wars' legal bills

House Speaker Richard Corcoran said Thursday he has asked two legislators with finance backgrounds to investigate the $100 million in legal bills the state has received in the protracted lawsuit against Georgia over access to water in the Flint-Chathoochee-Apalachicola River basin.

Corcoran, R-Lake O'Lakes, said he has asked Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, an attorney expert witness in insurance matters and Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, a forensic auditor, to look at the bills. He said he supported the litigation but "the question is: what is the fair market cost."

"I think you're going to find really fast that defending the rights of Floridians, yes, it's an absolutely worthy expense,''Corcoran told reporters. "Spending $100 million in legal fees, we are getting gouged and that needs to be fixed."

Last week, the House budget staff determined that since 2001, the state has been billed $97.8 million on the water wars and has spent $71.9 million to date. Nearly $54.4 million of it 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.

After legislators started asking questions, Gov. Rick Scott withdrew a request asking the House and Senate Joint Legislative Budget Commission to approve another $13 million, bringing the the total cost for the year would be about $41 million.

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, 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.

Two days after the inquiry, Department of Environmental Secretary Jon Steverson announced that he was resigning his post effective Feb. 3 and would be going to work for Foley Lardner. The Florida firm not only has represented DEP in the water wars litigation but also represents the department in litigation over the Everglades.