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.
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About the reporter
AJC news intern Chelsea Cariker-Prince began investigating the SAAG system in the fall of 2012 as a member of the News Enterprise, a student investigative reporting initiative of the journalism program at Emory University. Cariker-Prince’s inquiry brings to light a complex system involving countless actors who each claimed a small part of a vast universe. To help map this universe, she reviewed SAAG records posted on the attorney general’s website, outside counsel records for other states, hundreds of SAAG invoices and conducted numerous interviews.
History of the system
The SAAG system was launched in 1971 to manage the hiring of outside counsel for the state. Before that, Georgia often contracted county attorneys to handle state cases.
“There was not much continuity, there was not much consistency about how they did it,” said Tom Whelchel, a SAAG serving the Department of Transportation since 1972. The new system established rates and unified hiring procedures for outside counsel across the state, he said.
Former Attorney General Michael Bowers, who served from 1981 to 1997, attributes growth in the SAAG program to the needs of agencies like DOT and DHS, which require legal services in distant regions of the state. “Especially with respect to certain kinds of cases, we need local experts, like highway condemnation,” he said. Local lawyers know local systems and players better, so they often have an advantage.
“We needed local lawyers to keep from getting home-cooked,” Bowers said.
In 1991, the earliest year for which SAAG data are available, Bowers’s office spent $10.8 million on outside counsel. When he left in 1997, SAAG costs totaled $16.3 million, an increase of more than 50 percent.
Over the next 16 years, the cost has more than doubled.
2010 report: how many lawyers?
Three years ago, members of the House Appropriations Committee commissioned the House Budget Office to report on the SAAG program. The legislators questions included: Who was performing the state’s legal work? How much money was being spent on SAAGs? And how many state agencies had in-house attorneys? The resulting report was illuminating.
With a total of 182 lawyers, various agencies and departments had more in-house attorneys than the attorney general’s office, which employs about 140. Only the attorney general’s office, however, may represent the state in court. This is where SAAGs come in, taking up the slack the AG’s office can’t handle.
The state saved a net $3.9 million on SAAG expenses when the Legislature approved an additional 20 staff lawyers for the attorney general’s office in 2008, the report found.
The House Budget Office report called for a “thorough analysis of individual agencies in their respective budget committees to determine that attorneys — and all personnel— are being utilized to the highest level of efficiency.” To date, no such review has occurred.