Attorney General’s Office in Need of Greater Transparency

This year’s budget fiasco demonstrates once again that the interests of California taxpayers are rarely reflected in our government’s spending decisions. While some lawmakers are touring the state reminding citizens that their children’s education is at stake Attorney General Jerry Brown is filing lawsuits against anyone he can accuse of emitting too much greenhouse gas — including federal county and city governments.

When Brown sued the County of San Bernardino last year just one of a number of such lawsuits taxpayers there were forced to fund both sides of the case. It is difficult to see how the people of California come out ahead when they are forced to sue themselves.

Regardless of one’s stand on global warming the extent to which greenhouse gases contribute to it or the propriety of the state’s attorney general attempting to regulate it the logic behind this approach to litigation is perverse. The taxpayers’ interest cannot be served through this strategy of regulating city and county governments by suing them and the taxpayers who fund them.

Brown isn’t the first California attorney general to make us question his commitment to protecting taxpayer dollars. His predecessor Bill Lockyer caused those of us paying attention to scratch our heads on more than one occasion.

While serving as attorney general Lockyer regularly used outside counsel to try cases he brought forth. These lawyers who were often hired with no-bid contracts shielded from public view were frequently contributors to his campaign accounts. Taxpayers justifiably saw this as a cycle whereby Lockyer’s friends got him elected and he gave them business to keep them rich so they could use some of their wealth to help him get reelected. Nowhere in this cycle are taxpayer interests given priority and holding Lockyer accountable for this fact was nearly impossible. Ironically he is now serving as our state’s treasurer.

What’s a taxpayer to do? Well we can start by adopting simple proposals for reform. The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) has set forth a Transparency Code that it hopes attorneys general nationwide will voluntarily adopt. That code includes no-brainers such as committing to post all contracts with vendors including outside counsel on a website for public inspection. Though California’s State Contract and Procurement Registration System (SCPRS) should already contain this information contracts marked as "confidential" can be excluded. It was through this mechanism that Lockyer was able to shield more than 1700 contracts from public scrutiny according to an Associated Press investigation last year.

Other reform proposals include requiring the state to competitively bid contracts for outside counsel allowing for legislative oversight for contingency-fee arrangements with outside counsel and requiring counsel hired on a contingency basis to report on their hours worked services performed and fees received from taxpayers. Finally ATRA’s proposed code bars attorneys general from participating in settlements in which the Department of Justice can allocate recovered funds thereby circumventing the roles of the legislative and executive branches in appropriating and spending taxpayers’ money.

Thus far Attorney General Brown has only take modest steps in joining the growing movement across the nation to improve transparency in the attorney general’s office and increase accountability to taxpayers. More remains to be done and unless there exists independent review of the decision to classify contracts as "confidential" a presumption of cronyism will remain. Taxpayers are entitled to proof that our tax dollars are being well spent.

Jon Coupal is President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.