The legal fight to shield Indiana lawmakers from having to release email correspondence with lobbying groups has cost taxpayers at least $160,000.
Legislative leaders defend that spending as necessary to protect communications with citizens, while that tab will grow because it doesn't include legal costs from the March 17 oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court, The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne reported.
The court is considering a lawsuit from the Citizens Action Coalition, Common Cause Indiana and the Washington-based Energy and Policy Institute seeking emails between Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, and utility companies about his unsuccessful bill last year to cut payments for excess electricity generated by home solar power systems.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, hired the Indianapolis law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister to defend the lawsuit rather than using the state attorney general's office.
Bosma said he didn't know how much the case might end up costing, but believed it was important to protect the privacy of emails and other communications between lawmakers and their constituents.
"We are defending a lawsuit brought by an out-of-state interest group that wants to change that," he said. "No one likes to spend money but confidentiality of Hoosiers' communications with their elected officials is paramount."
The costs for the case are being split with the Indiana Senate and paid from the Legislature's general budget. So far the billing figures from the state auditor's office include from May 2015 through February 2016. The contract calls for a rate of $440 an hour to attorney Geoffrey Slaughter — who is one of three finalists for a seat on the Supreme Court — and a second lawyer assisting at a $345-per-hour rate.
An attorney for the consumer advocacy groups argued last month that legislators should be covered by the state's public access laws in asking the Supreme Court to overturn a Marion County judge's ruling that he could not interfere in operations of the legislative branch.
Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, said the groups hope the judge is directed to consider whether the emails they requested should be released.
"It would have been a lot cheaper just to honor the public records law," he said.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long and Bosma have both maintained that releasing emails would violate the confidentiality of constituents who sometimes reach out for help in embarrassing or delicate circumstances.
Long said House leaders asked the Senate to contribute to the legal costs because the court decision affects all legislators, regardless of chamber and party.
"It's expensive but when government gets sued and you believe you are doing the right thing, then you have to defend yourselves," Long said.