Lawmakers are adding "conflict of interest" to their growing list of concerns about the law firm hired by Attorney General Paul Van Dam to defend the state's controversial abortion bill against an ACLU challenge.
Last week, the ACLU filed suit against the state to stop enforcement of the abortion bill passed by the 1991 Legislature, considered the most restrictive law in the nation.It took Van Dam until Monday to name a law firm to serve as the state's outside counsel on the case. It only took until Tuesday for lawmakers to begin finding problems with the attorney general's selection.
The latest concern is over another high-profile lawsuit being handled by the law firm, Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough - the American Civil Liberties Union's effort to stop prayers at high school graduations.
The attorney representing the ACLU in its lawsuit against two Utah school districts is Michael Patrick O'Brien, a member of the Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough firm. O'Brien also sits on the ACLU of Utah's board of directors.
"There is a conflict of interest there," Sen. Lane Beattie, R-Bountiful, said Thursday. "I don't know if anything was done wrong. If it was, I would ask him (Van Dam) to reconsider the selection of this law firm."
Beattie has contacted legislative counsel for an opinion on the apparent conflict and was told that the state's rules of professional conduct for attorneys require that potential conflicts be disclosed.
That's already been done, according to John Clark, special counsel to the attorney general. Clark said that O'Brien's involvement with the ACLU both in and out of the courtroom did not necessarily present a conflict of interest.
The ACLU also has acknowledged the potential conflict, and, like the state, doesn't believe it will affect the outcome of the pending lawuits. "If there was any really serious conflict, we'd be the ones concerned," ACLU head Michele Parish said.
As long as everyone involved accepts the situation, there is no violation of the rules of professional conduct - and no reason for Van Dam to reconsider his selection.
The governor's chief of staff, Bud Scruggs, said a meeting Thursday between the governor and the attorneys at the law firm that will be handling the abortion-law case eased his earlier discomfort about potential conflict.
Scruggs suggested the critics might do the same. "Before legislators start running off and talking about audits or investigations, they ought to take 15 minutes to meet with these attorneys," he said.
"I was uncomfortable with them simply because I was unfamiliar with them," Scruggs said of Miles Holman and the associates who are handling the case with former Gov. Calvin Rampton.
Beattie's concerns, which have been echoed by at least two other legislators, follow a complaint made Tuesday by Rep. Reese Hunter, R-Salt Lake, about the decision to hire outside counsel.
Hunter and representatives of two conservative Utah organizations asked why the attorney general rejected offers from pro-life groups to represent the state for free.
Beattie said he agrees with Van Dam that those attorneys would also have a conflict of interest because they would in fact be representing two clients, the state and the pro-life groups themselves.