ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - When Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston needs legal advice, he could turn to the county attorney’s office and get it for free.
Instead, the sheriff prefers to take a different route that costs taxpayers more money. Since he took office in January 2011, Houston has spent more than $198,000 on outside attorneys, including hiring his own sheriff’s department lawyer and contracting work out to an Albuquerque law firm.
“That’s not out of bounds,” Houston said. “We’re just trying to make sure that the decisions we make are well-based on the law … and avoid unnecessary litigation to our department.”
Houston said he tries to use county attorneys before going to outside counsel, but county attorneys often can’t help him right away.
“We can’t wait two or three days for an opinion about what we need to do,” Houston said. “We need answers like yesterday.”
That $198,000 breaks down to $71,805 that went to an outside law firm and another $126,233 paid for a staff attorney at the sheriff’s office, according to county records.
“Most of the work that’s done right now on advising the sheriff on actual law enforcement matters comes through (an) outside attorney,” said Bernalillo County Attorney Randy Autio, who oversees a staff of seven other lawyers. “A lot of times the sheriff will need somebody … right away.”
Some previous Bernalillo County sheriffs also used outside attorneys.
While Darren White did not, former Sheriff Joe Bowdich spent about $137,000 on outside lawyers during a three-year period. Bowdich also told KRQE News 13 the county attorney’s office only employed three lawyers during the time he was sheriff compared with the eight now in that office.
The Albuquerque Police Department, by the way, uses staff city attorneys for its legal questions. However, the city employs about 35 lawyers, nearly five times the number in the county attorney’s office.
At least one Bernalillo County commissioner questioned Houston’s use of outside counsel.
“We really encourage all departments to use in-house counsel,” said Commissioner Maggie Hart-Stebbins. “That’s really the most cost-effective thing for the taxpayer.”
And the head of a libertarian government watchdog group said it’s a case of double-dipping the taxpayer.
“Obviously as a taxpayer, I don’t want to spend twice for something that’s being done,” said Paul Gessing, head of the Rio Grande Foundation.
Autio said he might need to hire another attorney to handle the legal questions from the sheriff’s office, though he admitted that won’t come cheap either.
Houston said his legal bills are well worth the investment.
“We make sure the monies we’re spending is justifiable and prudent and has a good return,” he said.
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