By Sean Whaley, Nevada News Bureau: Nevada’s Colorado River Commission is one of the state agencies cited in a recent legislative audit as paying some of the highest salaries to former state employees working as contractors, the Nevada News Bureau has learned.
Information obtained as a result of a public records request shows two former state employees, James Davenport and Sara Price, both attorneys, have collectively earned over half a million dollars in salaries as contractors for the agency over the past three and a half years.
Davenport, who was a manager for the CRC when he ended his state employment, has earned $411,708 in that time and Price, who was a deputy attorney general within the Nevada Attorney General’s Office when she ended her state employment, has earned $105,431.
Officials with the agency, which is not funded with taxpayer dollars, defend Davenport’s contract as necessary for the state to protect itself in complex negotiations with other states and the U.S. over the use of Colorado River water in the midst of a lengthy drought. He started his work as a contractor after retiring from the state in the fall of 2006.
Despite a section of his contract indicating he could be paid $350 an hour for his work, Davenport never earned such a rate, agency officials said.
Price’s work as a special consultant to the commission on matters concerning the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program is also essential for complying with the Endangered Species Act, the officials said.
The Colorado River Commission is a small state agency employing only about 35 people. Its budget is derived from water and power sales to various entities and is not funded with taxpayer funds of any type.
Colorado River Commission Executive Director George Caan said because of its size, the agency relies on contractors to provide specialized expertise when necessary.
Salaries earned by current and former state employees working as contractors for state agencies, a practice called “double dipping,” was the subject of a critical Legislative Counsel Bureau audit released late last year. The audit identified 51 current and former state employees working at 14 different agencies as contractors doing work similar to their duties as state employees during the audit period of fiscal years 2008 and 2009.
Two such employees were identified as working for the Colorado River Commission.
Davenport’s initial contract shows that he was paid up to $10,000 a month plus expenses. It also says that if the monthly payment was deemed “disproportionately large or small,” that the contractor “shall invoice the commission in the amount of $350 per hour for worked performed in lieu of the monthly payment.”
The Davenport contract appears to be one highlighted in the Legislative audit issued late last year: “For example, one agency contracted with a former employee at a rate of $350 per hour vs. $65 per hour cost to the state as an employee.”
But Caan said Davenport was never paid $350 an hour despite the contract language authorizing such a rate. Instead, Davenport was paid up to $120,000 a year, he said.
The agency was not contacted by legislative auditors to discuss the contracts ahead of the release of the audit, said CRC Deputy Executive Director Jim Salo.
An analysis by the agency of the hours Davenport worked in fiscal years 2007, 2008 and 2009 shows he earned on average about $185 an hour, more than his hourly rate as a state employee but well below the $350 rate cited in the audit.
The contract was modified in May 2009 and the $350 an hour component was eliminated. The revised contract, which reduced the monthly maximum pay to $5,000, was approved by the state Board of Examiners, made up of the governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
Caan said Nevada was in the midst of negotiations with the federal government and the six other states in the Colorado River Compact regarding water usage during the current drought when Davenport retired. His experience in the negotiations made it critical for the commission to continue to use his services, he said.
“So the reason to keep Jim working at the same kind of responsibility he had in this position was to ensure the continuity of those important discussions among the seven states and the federal government,” Caan said. “That was the criteria that we used in order to substantiate Jim’s continued work on behalf of the commission at a pay that was equivalent to what he would have earned had he kept up his state employment.”
Davenport is also representing Nevada and the commission as a special deputy attorney general in a Colorado River water rights case involving the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.
Davenport’s contract is anticipated to expire completely on June 30 of this year, Caan said. The lower monthly rate of pay in the renegotiated contract is because his work is coming to an end, he said.
Price’s contract shows she was hired initially at $175 an hour up to $125,000 starting in April 2005. The contract was also approved by the Board of Examiners. The contract was revised in April 2007 and the hourly rate increased to $190 up to $125,000 a year. It was amended again in April 2009 to $210 an hour through April 2011.
She had worked in the Attorney General’s office as an attorney assigned to provide legal advice to the Colorado River Commission.
“We have lots of lawyers who work . . . for the seven basin states who work for different agencies,” Caan said. “What Sara is earning is probably at the low end of what they earn and is certainly reasonable for someone with her expertise.”
Davenport could not be reached for comment.
Price said her contract with the commission has been managed conservatively and the maximum limit has never been exceeded.
Colorado River Commission Executive Director George Caan says the agency only hires contractors when specialized expertise is required:
Caan says Davenport’s continued employment was critical for important Colorado River negotiations:
Caan says Davenport was paid at a level similar to what he earned as a state employee:
Caan says Price is being paid a reasonable salary for her work: