Wyoming: Attorney general prepared to battle feds

By JOAN BARRON Star-Tribune staff writer

CHEYENNE, WYOMING - 3/29/03 -- Wyoming's new Attorney General Pat Crank said the state needs to "do battle" with the federal government over a number of natural resource issues.

Crank also said that he intends to bring back into the Attorney General's Office a lot of natural resource litigation now being handled by private attorneys under contract.

"I believe we have the expertise and we can develop the expertise to handle that litigation in-house," he said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

It will be a "significant change to have assistant attorney generals handle that litigation," he added.

That plan was praised by Rep. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, a lawyer and co-chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee, who contends the state loses money by paying contract attorneys. Instead, the state should retain assistant attorneys general who become experts in state issues by increasing their pay, he said.

Crank, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for Wyoming, and his chief deputy, Mike O'Donnell, both bring a wealth of experience in litigation to the Attorney General's Office, he said.

The Legislature in the recent session passed Senate File 97 that directs the attorney general to prepare a plan for potential litigation to mitigate detrimental impacts to the state from the introduction or management of any wildlife species, including endangered species by the federal government within the boundaries of the state.

Crank said federal regulations have a significant impact on the state. Wolves introduced in the state have an impact on agriculture and outfitters, he said.

The potential listing of the Preble's jumping mouse as an endangered species would have a dramatic impact on Goshen, Platte and Laramie counties in particular by restricting how landowners use their property, Crank said.

There also is a move, he said, to list certain prairie dog species under the Endangered Species Act.

"We want a say in what happens with regard to those species within the borders of Wyoming," Crank said.

The Bureau of Land Management in some areas of the state, he said, has failed to follow its own directives on the numbers of wild horses it manages.

"When they don't manage the wild horse herd properly, it has a dramatic effect on other wildlife," he said.

"Those are the kinds of issues we want to take an intelligent look at how we can solve those kinds of problems," Crank said.

Rep. Nicholas, applauded Crank's decision to have assistant attorneys general handle more natural resource litigation.

He said what happens is former assistant attorneys general develop expertise, then quit after three or four years and work under contract with the state.

In three of four years time, the hours and the billing can total hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

Then new people come into the office, he said, and question why the state is paying out so much money to contract attorneys.

Nicholas said the assistant attorneys general who leave have developed unique skills and aren't being paid enough money by the Attorney General's Office.

In contrast, many attorneys who work for the U.S. Attorney's Office are well paid and become career employees, he said.

"The total dollars we're spending are much more than it might cost us to hire lawyers and increase their salaries and keep them there," Nicholas said.

He added that it also is time to look at the working conditions of the assistant attorneys general. He said they are spread around among the agencies in inadequate office space.

"I think it's time to investigate if we really want to develop a professional Attorney General's Office," Nicholas said. "We need to look at investing in professional offices."

Perhaps, he said, the Attorney General's Office could be located together on a couple of floors in the Hathaway Building.

"It frustrates me that we train lawyers and give them great skills, and then they leave. We can't replace them immediately so we end up paying them substantial amounts until someone puts the brakes on," Nicholas said.


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