Democratic lawmakers are slamming a move by GOP leadership to hire outside lawyers to represent them in an ongoing redistricting lawsuit, warning Republicans are setting up taxpayers to be fleeced.
The Assembly and Senate Org committees voted along party lines Thursday to authorize the Legislature to hire the law firms of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Bell Giftos St. John LLC "and any other firms, entities or counsel deemed necessary."
"This is an open-ended as it can be, and it's a blank check from taxpayers," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.
He offered amendments that would have limited lawmakers to working with the Legislative Reference Bureau or Leg Council, as well as one that would have required monthly expenditure reports from the outside firms.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, refused to answer questions from reporters following an Assembly Rules meeting. Asked if it was an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, Steineke said: "I'm not going to get into that," saying several times a statement would be released by the office of Speaker Robin Vos.
The ballot commits state taxpayer dollars to cover the legal work, though it included no caps on how much the lawyers can charge for an hourly rate or what the final legal bill may be. Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said that follows past practice with ballots to authorize outside counsel. Lawmakers could not negotiate terms of the engagement until after they received the OK to hire the firms, she added.
Tanck said the engagement letter with the firms would include specifics on how much they will charge. But she could not speak to specifics because the agreement had not been finalized.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said there's "absolutely no reason" to give GOP attorneys a "blank check."
"Republicans have already wasted too much time and taxpayer money trying to justify their unconstitutional election rigging efforts," Shilling said. "Rather than throwing more money at high-priced Republican lawyers, we should be investing our scarce taxpayer resources in Wisconsin classrooms, roads and communities."
The lawyers are expected to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of lawmakers after a federal lawsuit found unconstitutional the Assembly map Republicans drew six years ago. The three-judge panel has ordered the Legislature to redraw the lines by Nov. 1, but the state Department of Justice has vowed to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Vos said in a release, "We must ensure that every essential argument is heard before the court to make clear that Wisconsin has legislative maps that are constitutional."
DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said it is common in redistricting cases for lawmakers to hire outside counsel to support the state's position.
"We welcome such support here," he wrote in an email.
Bell Giftos St. John LLC is home to Kevin St. John, who served as deputy attorney general from 2011-15 under Republican J.B. Van Hollen. Kirkland & Ellis LLP lists offices in seven U.S. cities, as well as Europe and Asia; Paul Clement, a Cedarburg native who served as solicitor general under President George W. Bush, is a partner at the DC office.