By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey and Zach Hagadone
Bonner County commissioners voted unanimously July 12 to approve two new retainer agreements with Davillier Law Group, approving increased hourly rates in order for the firm to continue to represent the county in both general legal matters and litigation specific to aviation.
Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson presented the new contracts on behalf of Davillier, which raised the rate for attorneys Mauricio Cardona and Allen Schoff — who do the bulk of the work for Bonner County, Wilson said — from $200 per hour to $300 per hour. The new contracts also feature a $500 per hour rate for attorney George Wentz, a partner in the firm; $400 per hour costs for attorneys Brant C. Hadaway and Richard Seamon; $250 per hour for the services of Andrew Drexel; and any necessary paralegal work costing $125 per hour.
Wentz, who authored the new agreements, noted in his letter to commissioners that Davillier was “offering the county its services at a deeply discounted rate, in furtherance of our civic commitment and to serve our local community.”
While one agreement refers to legal services for “general matters,” the second refers specifically to legal matters related to the county’s airport operations. Wilson said the agreements had not been updated in “three or four years.”
“We haven’t had others come asking to renegotiate their retainer agreements,” Wilson said, “but it wouldn’t be beyond the pale given the cost of everything right now.”
In deliberation, Commissioner Jeff Connolly expressed concern about the increased rates.
“I don’t like the new numbers very well, but I mean, we’re seeing that throughout our costs,” he said. “[They’re] going up and up.”
He emphasized that the board must vote on a case-by-case basis on whether to utilize Davillier’s services.
“The more this costs us, the more I would encourage us not to use them if possible,” he said.
Still, the board voted to approve both new contracts.
Davillier Law Group did not respond to a request for comments on a number of points.
Gun suits, Bears Ears, COVID masks and Cyber Ninjas
While it is atypical for constituents to be familiar with the law firms representing their local municipalities, Bonner County residents may recognize the Davillier name from the firm’s time representing the county in its suit against the city of Sandpoint challenging the Festival at Sandpoint’s no-weapons policy during the annual concert series at War Memorial Field.
The lawsuit, which launched in late-summer 2019, concluded just over a year later when Kootenai County District Court Judge Lansing L. Haynes ruled that the county had no standing in the case.
Bonner County paid Davillier nearly $230,000 to litigate the Festival gun suit, according to records obtained by the Reader in March 2021. Haynes also ruled that the county would need to pay about $71,000 to the city to fulfill a motion for costs and fees, bringing the bill for Bonner County taxpayers to just over $300,000.
Davillier — which is based in New Orleans but has offices in Sandpoint and Phoenix — has also grabbed national attention for its attorneys’ involvement with a number of high-profile cases.
In Utah from 2015 to 2017, the firm was deeply involved with public land issues, beginning with a report commissioned by the Utah Legislature that concluded the state could sue the federal government and take control of about 30 million acres of public land. Based on that report, Utah Republican lawmakers signaled their willingness to put at least $14 million toward a lawsuit against the feds, in spite of the fact that, as the Salt Lake City Weekly reported at the time, “nearly every other legal opinion across the country has concluded that such an attempt has almost no chance of success.”
Davillier also represented opposition to the Bears Ears National Monument, ultimately costing one southeastern Utah county $500,000, though the effort ended when then-President Donald Trump reduced Bears Ears by 85% following his election.
More recently, in April, Davillier attorneys Brant C. Hadaway and George Wentz — who Bonner County will now pay $400 and $500 per hour, respectively, for their services — led the legal team representing the anti-masking and -vaccine nonprofit Health Freedom Defense Fund and two Florida women who successfully argued before Trump-appointed Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle that the federal government had overstepped its authority by requiring masks on planes and other forms of public transit. That decision triggered a nationwide reversal of the travel mask mandate.
While the American Bar Association said Mizelle lacked enough experience to serve on the bench, public health officials and travel industry leaders alike described the ruling as “unimaginable,” “shocking” and “perilous,” according to The New York Times.
Then there is Davillier’s years-long and ongoing involvement with a raft of legal actions in Arizona centered on “election integrity.”
In April 2021, Arizona Senate Republicans hired Florida-based firm Cyber Ninjas to “audit” the 2020 election results in Maricopa County, which is the state’s most populous region, suggesting the results were somehow fraudulent — a conclusion that has been roundly debunked.
Alexander Kolodin, a Davillier partner who leads the firm’s Phoenix office and serves as co-counsel to the Arizona Republican Party, as well as practices under Kolodin Law — represented Cyber Ninjas throughout its legal travails as it refused to release a number of records related to its review, including in September 2021 when Phoenix Newspapers, Inc. filed a motion in Maricopa County to force their disclosure. Among those records was an email from Kolodin to Arizona Republican Rep. Mark Finchem, copied to former Arizona Republican Party Chairman Randy Pullen and Wentz.
Cyber Ninjas’ parsing of the Maricopa vote made big news, especially when a report by election officials shot down nearly every one of its findings and identified almost 80 of its claims to be false or misleading. The company went out of business in January even as it was threatened with a $50,000-per-day penalty for refusing a public records request from the Arizona Republic for documents related to its “conspiracy-laden audit,” as NBC News described it.
Finchem et al
The appearance of Mark Finchem’s name in the Cyber Ninjas records disclosure case isn’t surprising to those who have followed the “Stop the Steal” movement and Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was “stolen” by fraud. The Arizona lawmaker is running for secretary of state on an unrelenting campaign alleging massive voter fraud and election insecurity. So much so that The Atlantic referred to him in a July 14 article as “Steve Bannon’s Man in Arizona.” He has ridden baseless claims of a “stolen election” to the national spotlight and earned a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Throughout 2021, Davillier served consistent representation for Finchem in a handful of matters — notably a claim of defamation against a fellow Arizona lawmaker who alleged Finchem participated in the Jan. 6 attack.
Arizona Democrats in January 2021 contacted the Department of Justice and FBI with the request to investigate Finchem, among others, for what they described as participating in, encouraging and inciting the violence on Jan. 6. Though faced with a number of ethics complaints, the Republican chair of the Arizona House ethics committee cleared Finchem of wrongdoing.
That Finchem was at the Capitol on that day is without question. Text messages released by Finchem’s attorney Kolodin to the Phoenix New Times in early February 2021 showed him communicating directly with “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander about his appearance at the Jan. 6 rally in Washington D.C., which was canceled as events devolved into the deadly attack on the Capitol.
In the text messages, Finchem talks of being “swept up” in the crowd and identifies himself as having been present “on the side of the Capitol facing the Supreme Court.” Images published by the Arizona Mirror in June 2021 showed Finchem directly in front of the east steps of the Capitol after protesters had broken the barricades and breached parts of the building. There is no evidence that Finchem himself entered the Capitol.
Kolodin, of Kolodin Law this time, as well as Wentz and Hadaway of Davillier, threatened a defamation suit in February 2021 against Arizona Democratic House Member Charlene Fernandez for her claims about Finchem’s participation in the events of Jan. 6, alleging that she had acted with “malicious purpose” to “chill debate, not encourage it; to shut down any discussion of election fraud in the 2020 Presidential election and of the larger question of election integrity in general; and, if possible, to criminally punish Plaintiffs for exercising their First Amendment right to peacefully demonstrate and petition the Government for redress of grievances.”
Meanwhile, the group Rural Arizonans for Accountability launched a campaign to have Finchem recalled, prompting a cease-and-desist letter in May 2021 signed by Kolodin and Wentz demanding the organization retract statements made on its website and in a trio of newspapers for 30 days, as well as destroy other materials related to claims against Finchem.
Also in the letter, Kolodin and Wentz wrote that Finchem was in Washington D.C. “to hand deliver a package to Vice-President Pence, as well as to attend President Trump’s speech in front of the White House and to speak at a permitted event outside the Capitol.”
A Yuma County Superior Court judge threw out the defamation suit on April 29, 2022, saying Fernandez had the First Amendment right to send a letter to federal law enforcement officials asking them to investigate Finchem and former-Arizona lawmaker Anthony Kern.
The recall effort fizzled in June 2021 when organizers failed to gather enough signatures.
While those legal actions appear to have wrapped up, Davillier has remained active in Arizona Republican politics, particularly as they pertain to elections and Jan. 6.
In February this year, the Arizona Republican Party contracted Davillier to represent it in a lawsuit asking the Arizona Supreme Court to strike down vote-by-mail in the state ahead of the 2022 election.
Davillier attorneys argued that the only constitutional form of voting is physically “at the polls,” according to an Associated Press report, which added that 90% of voters in Arizona cast ballots received in the mail during the 2020 election.
In March, Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey criticized the lawsuit to eliminate early voting, saying, “I’m certain the way it’s written it’s destined to fail,” according to Phoenix-based KTAR News 92.3 FM.
And fail it did, in April, when CNN reported the Arizona high court dismissed the suit, followed by another dismissal in June by a Mohave County judge who ruled that mail-in voting is perfectly constitutional. However, according to The Arizona Republic, Kolodin — this time of Davillier — said it’s likely to be appealed.
Also in February, the Arizona Republican Party hired Kolodin and Davillier to represent Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward and her husband as they sought to challenge a subpoena from the Jan. 6 House select committee for phone records pertaining to the so-called “slate of fake electors” submitted by Republican officials in some swing states, including Arizona, in an effort to turn the 2020 election to Trump.
Ward, her husband and others were again subpoenaed by the Department of Justice over the fake electors in June.
“The document at the heart of the matter, which led the DOJ to issue a subpoena, involves 11 Arizona Republicans who met at the state party headquarters to falsely declare themselves the state’s official presidential electors,” the Arizona Mirror reported on June 24. Kolodin is again representing the Wards in the matter, the media outlet reported.
Meanwhile, Davillier received a combined total of $78,094.60 from the Arizona Republican Party and Republican Party of Arizona, LLC from Jan. 24 to June 27, according to data from the Arizona Secretary of State.
Closer to home
That Davillier’s relationship with right-wing Arizona politics — especially as they pertain to the 2020 election — is abundantly clear from public sources and reporting. But one of that state’s most high profile actors, Mark Finchem, appears to have even closer ties to Davillier than legal advice.
According to a campaign finance disclosure form filed with the Arizona Secretary of State and dated Nov. 25, 2020, Finchem listed Clean Power Technologies, LLC as one of his only two ownership or financial interests in businesses, trusts or investment funds, claiming the approximate equity value of his interest in the company at more than $100,001.
The address for Clean Power Technologies listed on Finchem’s 2020 form is 212 N. First, Ave., Ste. 300 in Sandpoint — three doors down from Davillier’s former Sandpoint office at 212 N. First Ave., Ste. 303.
Neither company is currently at that address, Davillier having relocated to the Sandpoint Center on Church Street and Fourth Avenue nearly three years ago.
Clean Power Technologies’ website appears to have been taken down as well and, while the Idaho Secretary of State still has it listed among active businesses, the company’s address is now in the Boise area.
However, Clean Power Technologies still had an operating website as recently as late March, and when the Reader accessed it at that time, the site included Wentz’s profile, among others associated with the company.
Finchem did not respond to a request for comment, but his LinkedIn account still describes his occupation as “VP Energy Policy Analysis at Clean Power Technologies, Inc.,” dated January 2018 to present, though now identified as being located in Oro Valley, Ariz., which he represents in the Arizona Legislature.
The only other individuals associated with Clean Power Technologies, LLC on LinkedIn are current registered agent Nick Hansen, of Boise, and Steve Youngdhal, of Sandpoint, whose profile lists “VP Business Development,” dated October 2018 to present. Youngdahl’s profile also indicates he has been managing director at Make a Difference Ventures, LP since January 2020.
MAD Energy, a subsidiary of Make a Difference Ventures, on its website lists three directors: Youndahl, Walt Teter and George Wentz, while a search of the company’s address returns 414 Church St., Ste. 303 — the same address as Davillier’s current office in the Sandpoint Center.
It’s there that Davillier’s name has most recently become the center of public attention locally, after the Ammon Bundy for Idaho governor campaign advertised a town hall July 21 — featuring “snacks provided, compliments of George Wentz” — at what the advertisement described as “Tango Cafe” at 414 Church St. That prompted blowback against the cafe by Bundy opponents, with some going so far as to call for a boycott.
On its Facebook page July 20, Tango Cafe emphasized that the popular eatery, located in the ground floor of the Sandpoint Center, never had anything to do with the Bundy event — or the man providing the snacks:
“Tango Cafe, The Sandpoint Center and Sandpoint Property Management are not affiliated with Ammon Bundy or the Davillier Law Firm, and in no way take responsibility for the contents of next Thursday’s program, or any controversy engendered by any program presented at this facility by such users.”
‘Attorneys are contractors’
Asked why Bonner County continued to contract specifically with Davillier despite the outcome of the Festival suit and the other implications of obtaining legal representation from such a politically involved firm, Commissioner Dan McDonald kept his replies strictly fiscally based.
“In the past, their rates were below what would be considered a market rate for a firm of that caliber and they hold a great deal of institutional knowledge that a new firm wouldn’t have and the county would have to pay for a new firm to come up to speed,” McDonald wrote in a July 13 email to the Reader. “The new rates are closer to what a market rate should be.
“So we could search for a new firm that would probably be one without an office here and pay extra to bring them up to speed,” he continued, “or go with a local firm who already has the background and subject matter knowledge.”
Pressed in a follow-up email, McDonald elaborated.
“Attorneys are contractors. They work at the pleasure of paying clients,” he said. “Personally, I don’t care what other cases they are involved in as long as they handle county business responsibly and they have helped the people of Bonner County very much over the years.
“As far as the Festival issue, were it not for our sheriff backing out, I truly believe we would have prevailed in the appeal,” he added.
Commissioner Jeff Connolly told the Reader that he has long been a proponent of doing as much litigation with in-house counsel as possible, and has advocated for the Prosecutor’s Office to hire more attorneys, “especially if the prices continue to rise” for outside counsel like Davillier. Currently, he estimated that the county keeps four or five outside firms on retainer.
When it came to the Festival suit, Connolly said it is “surely something I’d never want to repeat.”
“Gosh, what a waste,” he said, referring to the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to litigate the case.
“All we needed was for them to answer a question,” he added — that question being whether private entities can police weapons on leased public property. “It’s a moot point at this point.”
As for Davillier’s dealings in other states, Connolly said: “It’s not on my radar.”
Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Scott Bauer commented on behalf of the Bonner County Prosecutor’s Office regarding the new contracts, stating that “if the board wants to hire a specific firm, as long as [Prosecutor Louis Marshall] agrees that they are reasonably competent to do it, and the board wants to bring particular litigation that’s colorable litigation, he usually goes with the board’s wishes.”
“In terms of any ongoing relationship with any particular firm, the Prosecutor’s Office has no formal position,” Bauer continued. “It’s basically, if the board wants to do this and it’s reasonable, that’s great.”
Bauer acknowledged that the county contracting with Davillier has been “politicized” and that “there are questions.”
“We don’t rule out public comment or concern about costs or whatever it is, but I would just say that this contract itself is not a watershed thing at all,” he said. “It’s not a commitment. It’s only a commitment, when they do the work, to pay the amount of money.”
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