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Georgia Pays Millions for Private Lawyers

Georgia has spent more than $100 million during the past three years on private lawyers hired by the attorney general to perform state legal work — one of the largest programs of its kind among the 50 states. An exhaustive review of that program by The News Enterprise and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found […]

SAAGs Feature Image centeredThis story grew out of a collaboration between The News Enterprise and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. News Enterprise reporter Chelsea Cariker-Prince began investigating the SAAG system in the fall of 2012 and continued that work as an AJC intern during the summer of 2013. Cariker-Prince’s inquiry brings to light a complex system that involves hundreds of  actors.  To  map that universe, Cariker-Prince poured though SAAG invoices and other records obtained through Open Records requests, reviewed outside counsel records for other states, and conducted dozens of interviews.

By Chelsea Cariker-Prince

Georgia has spent more than $100 million during the past three years on private lawyers hired by the attorney general to perform state legal work — one of the largest programs of its kind among the 50 states.

The cost of special assistant attorneys general, known as SAAGs (pronounced “sags”), has increased each year since the Great Recession, a time when most of state government was cutting back.

An exhaustive review of the SAAG program by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The News Enterprise at Emory University found a case in which the state renegotiated a contract with a Washington lawyer and wound up paying her more than she originally sought – so much more that she returned some of the money of her own accord. The review also turned up an Atlanta attorney who works as outside counsel for the same agency that he lobbies on behalf of private clients. And it found a lawyer in South Georgia who put in for more than $95,000 in expenses in 2012, on top of the $219,000 he billed for legal fees.

The AJC and The News Enterprise, made up of investigative reporting students, spent months reviewing thousands of pages of documents to assess the SAAG program. The investigation revealed some problems in the SAAG system, but it also showed that the state depends heavily on SAAGs; in fact,

Georgia has more than twice as many outside attorneys as it has staff lawyers in the attorney general’s office.

Attorney General Sam Olens notes that the attorney general’s office has managed the SAAG program for more than 30 years. “Overall, I believe that Georgia taxpayers receive good value for their money both in how the program is administered and in the legal services provided by the SAAGs,” Olens said in a statement.

He said transparency and efficiency are among his priorities for the SAAG program, and in fact he has brought more transparency to the system by putting some SAAG spending records online.

Hundreds and hundreds of lawyers

The state hired 332 SAAGs in fiscal 2013 to represent the executive branch, supplementing the 139 full-time staff lawyers in the attorney general’s office. Georgia also employed 182 attorneys in the various departments and agencies as of 2010, the last year for which figures were available, but they don’t work for the attorney general and aren’t permitted, by law, handle courtroom work.

In one respect, SAAGs are a bargain for taxpayers because they work at discounted rates. The state hires SAAGs to take on legal matters that the attorney general’s office either lacks the expertise or the staff to handle. In many cases, the state finds it more efficient to hire a local attorney in, say, Valdosta or Ringgold than to send a staff lawyer from Atlanta.

One reason Georgia has one of the nation’s biggest SAAG programs is that, in terms of funding, it has one of the smallest attorney general’s offices, according to Jim Tierney, the former attorney general of Maine and director of the National State Attorneys General program at Columbia [continue reading]

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