By Zach Hagadone and Lyndsie Kiebert
It has been more than two weeks since Bonner County commissioners voted to proceed with legal action against the city of Sandpoint over the Festival at Sandpoint’s firearms prohibition, touching off hundreds of Facebook comments filled with speculation, accusation and recrimination on all sides.
Among the aspects of the story swirling on social media is heightened interest in the firm retained by the county to handle its case — Davillier Law Group. In response to several Sandpoint Reader inquiries, Commissioner Dan McDonald, who has most vocally championed the county’s cause online, provided some details.
“When [you] need a law firm, you want the best and one that gets to the end quickly,” McDonald wrote in an email. “Davillier has that reputation. They win and they do so quickly and decisively.”
Commentators have been quick to question how much the county is paying Davillier, whose website lists offices in New Orleans and at 212 N. First Ave. in Sandpoint. According to the Bonner County Clerk’s Office, money for legal fees comes from the Civil Litigation Fund, which is included in the county’s Justice Fund.
McDonald in a Facebook post Sept. 3 stated that Davillier has been on retainer with the county for more than two-and-a-half years, during which time it has handled “a number of cases for us, many that never had to go to court, they are that good.” The contracted amount is $150 an hour, “if I recall,” he added.
What’s more, McDonald told the Reader that the action against the city is “declaratory,” rather than a civil suit, meaning a judge will interpret the law in question without taking any action or awarding damages against the party determined at fault.
“In this case, the state law is clearly written so this should go fairly fast,” McDonald wrote, adding that while a civil suit can take years to wrap up, a declaratory action should take “only months.”
McDonald emphasized Davillier’s reputation as “the go-to for risk liability and other special cases,” noting that the firm has represented other local entities and organizations, including the Pend Oreille Hospital District. In addition to D. Colton Boyles, the lead Davillier attorney on the county’s action against the city, McDonald said Mauricio Cardona, also of Davillier, has done work for the county.
“As for the County, we have been extremely happy with their performance,” McDonald added.
Asked for comment, Boyles told the Reader: “I’m not going to be able to make a statement on the record about anything.”
While Davillier has only recently made its way squarely into the local public eye, it has cut an outsized figure elsewhere in the West — especially in Utah, where between 2015 and 2017 the firm was heavily involved with efforts to transfer federal lands at both state and local levels.
In 2015, Davillier attorneys hired by the Utah Legislature concluded in a report that the state could sue the feds and win to take some 30 million acres of public land. The price tag for that action: about $14 million, according to a December 2015 report from the Salt Lake City Weekly — despite, as the paper pointed out, “nearly every other legal opinion across the country has concluded that such an attempt has almost no chance of success.”
Two years later, in September 2017, the Associated Press reported that Utah lawmakers involved with the push to transfer federal land were “under scrutiny again for their work with outside legal consultants, this time for a perceived lack of transparency about what the firm is doing as preparations for a lawsuit drag into a third year with no action.”
According to the AP, a watchdog group pushed the Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands to account for how $2 million allocated to the project became “a slush fund.” Davillier paid back $6,000 to Utah in 2016 following an inquiry that revealed the firm “expensed things like first-class airfare, luxury hotels and alcohol that appeared to violate contracts,” AP reported. According to a 2016 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, more than $340,000 alone was spent on public relations work, with lawmakers claiming that money went to support Davillier as it prepared the suit. Opponents, however, claimed that money was being used to support PR efforts against the proposed Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
Ultimately, the Utah lawsuit did not go forward, as incoming President Donald Trump in 2016 cooled lawmakers’ ardour for fighting the feds. Quoted by the AP, one Utah legislator who led the effort said, “There’s a sense that the current administration is seeking to address many of the concerns we have.”
Meanwhile, the rural southeastern Utah county of San Juan paid nearly $500,000 to Davillier in 2016 and 2017 to oppose Bears Ears and “lobby for the monument’s reduction,” according to a July 2019 report from the Tribune.
As with the Utah state lawsuit, those efforts came to an end after Trump’s election, when the president reduced the Bears Ears National Monument by 85%.
“Depending on what side of the political spectrum you were on, it was either the best decision ever or a big old waste of time,” said longtime owner, former managing editor and current San Juan Record Publisher Bill Boyle, whose newspaper covered the issue extensively — breaking the story about how much the county was paying Davillier.
“These are silk-suit, high-powered attorneys that come in and charge first-class rates,” he told the Reader in a phone interview.
The strain on the county’s budget helped perpetuate “this swirling cesspool of intrigue and deteriorating relationships that are just getting worse and worse,” Boyle said. “It’s a lot of people talking, a lot of people manipulating, a lot of people not listening and opening the way for folks like Davillier to swoop in and take advantage.”
Asked if he’d read the most recent Utah press coverage of Davillier’s activities in San Juan County, McDonald said, “I’ve read that article and I’m willing to bet it doesn’t tell the whole story. Davillier has an extensive resume that includes a great number of international clients. We have watched them work a number of our smaller cases over the past few years and their keen attention to detail and diverse knowledge of the law [is] very impressive.”
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