A legislative audit of the Utah Transit Authority suggests UTA hire an in-house attorney to cut its outside legal costs and implement procedures to help officials avoid conflicts of interest.

Legislative Auditor General Wayne Welsh pointed out that the UTA averages $271,000 in legal fees each year, far in excess of the amount it would cost to hire a full-time state lawyer.An average assistant attorney general makes $133,000, including benefits and office expenses.

"The amount spent by UTA could pay for more than two full-time in-house attorneys. We recommend that UTA consider bring- ing all or a portion of their legal services in-house," Welsh said.

UTA is not bound by the auditor's recommendations, and spokesman John Inglish said the company has no intention of hiring its own lawyers. The transit authority has a contract with William Oswald and Randall Feil and will continue to use them.

"We've studied that and at this time we're not pursuing in-house legal counsel," said Inglish. "As we compare our fees with other transit systems, we find our costs to be rather low."

Creation of an in-house legal department usually leads to an expansion in the number of attorneys, increasing legal costs, he said.

The question of UTA's legal costs also is being explored by a legislative task force, which is scheduled to meet later this week. The House chairman of that panel, Rep. Ray Short, R-Holladay, initiated the legislative audit.

UTA is financed by bus fares, a 1/4-cent sales tax in the counties in which it operates and federal funding.

Welsh also suggested the UTA develop policies against company officials privately buying land linked to company transactions. That recommendation was based on the appearance of impropriety in a 17-year-old deal.

The audit focused primarily on allegations of profit-making and inappropriate land deals involving UTA officers - issues that were the subject of a recently closed investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General's Office in Denver.

Welsh said the land transactions reviewed were legal and, for the most part, appeared to be appropriate.

The one exception outlined was a 1978 land purchase for UTA maintenance facilities in west Salt Lake County. The UTA board bought two of three available parcels from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but passed on a third, adjacent 15-acre parcel.

UTA General Manager John Pingree and attorney Oswald privately purchased the property after notifying the UTA board chairman of their intention. They apparently resold it later, at a profit, for development.

"We found nothing to indicate that the purchases of the land by Mr. Oswald and Mr. Pingree was illegal," Welsh said. "However, such a transaction by the UTA general manager and legal counsel may give the appearance of impropriety."