Monday, January 30, 2006

DOYLE MAKES ATTORNEY POWER GRAB

Doyle takes firm hand with state lawyers
Posted: May 17, 2005
Cary Spivak & Dan Bice

It sounds like a gubernatorial daydream - launching your own in-house state law firm.

Gov. Jim Doyle, a Harvard-educated lawyer, must be tired of the hassles that come from dealing with scores of state lawyers and their department bosses, all of whom enjoy civil service protection. And, he's obviously none too pleased with the legal eagles in the office of Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, a fellow Dem but no political friend.

So why not just create a new firm? It could be dubbed Doyle & Associates. Or, maybe Doyle & Marotta - Secretary of Administration Marc Marotta knows a thing or two about running a big firm, he was a partner at Foley & Lardner before joining the cabinet.

Actually, this isn't a dream - creating an in-house firm is in Doyle's budget bill.
The governor is recommending moving about 120 lawyers to a new division in the Department of Administration. The suggested operation has an organizational chart that looks very much like the ones used by silk stocking firms. Just like the big boys, it would be overseen by a managing partner and the lawyers would track billable hours, since state agencies would be charged for their services.

Dan Leistikow, Doyle's chief of flacks, said the proposal would save taxpayers money by cutting 13 lawyer jobs and making the state's army of lawyers more efficient.

"Now we have a situation where we have groups of lawyers at different agencies arguing with each other on state time," Leistikow said. "It makes more sense to take those lawyers and put them together under one roof."

That's the good government reason.

But there's also a couple subtle political benefits to launching Doyle & Marotta.

For one thing, Team Doyle would get some satisfaction by yanking two jobs out of Lautenschlager's shop and placing them under Marotta.

Those jobs just happen to be in the Justice Department's tax section, which had urged the state to lick its wounds and not appeal a complex tax case.

Doyle overruled Justice, hired the law firm of Axley Brynelson, where one of his closest pals is a partner, and paid it more than 80 grand to press forward. The bottom line, as we reported Sunday, is the state lost the appeal.

Despite getting whacked in court, Doyle's guys still blame Lautenschlager for not taking the case. In fact, that's one reasons Doyle wants the tax attorney jobs under his wing.

"There have been some difficulties in getting them to take up these very important cases," Leistikow said.

But the icing on the cake, however, is the idea to strip 12 of the general counsel positions in various state agencies of their civil service protection.

The result: They would become political employees who could be fired at will.

"Secretaries and governors come and go, but lots of these people tend to stay," one Madison insider said of general counsels. "You want somebody with an unbiased opinion."

Worried state lawyers who oppose Doyle's plan point to the case of Jim Thiel, who had been the general counsel for Department of Transportation.

Thiel was demoted in December, after he released a memo to the Journal Sentinel that showed a report on consulting costs was finished seven months earlier than department officials had claimed.

Providing the media with the means to contradict the administration was not good for Thiel's career. The 31-year veteran was demoted and has since filed a claim against the state. And all this for following the state's Open Records Law.

"There is a real danger that with the loss of civil service protection for general counsels, legal service and legal advice would be subject to politics and political pressure, said Bill Gansner, head of the state lawyers union, which is fighting Doyle's proposal.

Leistikow said removing the civil service protection is not related to Thiel's demotion. The protection would be removed because the job of general counsel would change.

"This was all in the works well before that situation developed," Leistikow said, taking pains not to mention Thiel by name. "The problem being addressed is about state lawyers spending a lot of time arguing with each other across the departments."

Not to mention sometimes annoying the governor.

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