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Judicial Inquiry Commission's budget swells over judges' cases

on 11/19/01.

The budget of the state Judicial Inquiry Commission swelled by nearly 75 percent last year as it sought to prosecute and defend itself against cases stemming from the 2000 elections.

Gov. Don Siegelman, provided emergency funds to the commission to cover the expenses, which brought criticism from a citizens' group.

The commission's budget jumped from $233,592 in fiscal 2000 to $405,304 in fiscal 2001, primarily due to legal costs and the addition of another staff member, The Birmingham News reported.

A Birmingham law firm is charging more than $115,000 for helping to prosecute Supreme Court Justice Harold See on ethics charges stemming from campaign ads last year and for defending the commission against See's federal lawsuit.

A Mobile law firm has billed nearly $60,000 to defend against a suit alleging the commission violated candidates' free speech rights by prohibiting them from answering a Christian Coalition pre-election questionnaire.

The commission's legal costs in the two cases dwarfed the $16,635 it was billed for outside lawyers during fiscal year 2000 and the $8,952 billed the previous year.

The commission had to rely on emergency funds from Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman to pay the bills this year, an action that drew criticism from Twinkle Andress, executive director of Citizens for a Sound Economy.

"They went to the governor and requested an extra 90 grand to fund these lawsuits at a time when the state is in proration and there's not enough money for our school children," said Andress, whose group promotes less taxes and government.

Andress, former executive director of the Alabama Republican Party, said the Judicial Inquiry Commission has "only gone after Republicans" in what appears to be "a partisan witch-hunt with our tax dollars."

Margaret Childers, the commission's executive director, said both cases involve important issues that must be resolved. Outside lawyers were needed because Attorney General Bill Pryor removed his office from handling either case because of a conflict of interest, she said.

Pryor recused himself and appointed private lawyers requested by the commission because he had supported the Republican candidates in their campaigns, said Richard Allen, Pryor's chief deputy.

Attorneys handling the two cases said they are billing the commission $150 an hour, while their usual rates are $225 to $300 per hour.