Despite attempts by the Reagan administration to limit to $75 an hour fees for lawyers who successfully sue the government, private attorneys representing federal agencies have been paid at least $50 million in the past two years at rates of up to $285 an hour, according to Monday's edition of the National Law Journal.
The federal government has 17,000 lawyers on its payroll. But documents obtained by the Journal under the Freedom of Information Act indicated that government agencies are hiring outside counsel for everything from real estate closings to patent searches, collective bargaining and litigation.
The practice is likely to draw close scrutiny from congressional oversight committees, particularly because the administration is trying to place a $75-an-hour cap on fees paid to lawyers who win suits against the government. The fees are provided for under 140 federal laws, but many deal with complex litigation on civil rights and environmental law.
The question of attorney fees is especially sensitive because of a request by Attorney General- designate Edwin Meese III for reimbursement for attorney fees incurred during the recent investigation into Meese's finances by independent counsel Jacob A. Stein.
Meese has asked to be reimbursed for $720,924 in fees owed his lawyers, who submitted bills at rates up to $250 an hour.
The payments reported in the Journal appear to contradict testimony last September by Deputy Attorney General Carol E. Dinkins to a Senate subcommittee that "taxpayers presently compensate attorneys who sue the government at vastly higher rates than they pay attorneys who represent the government."
Judith A. Pond, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said Dinkins would have no comment.
However, the documents obtained by the National Law Journal show that major law firms regularly have been hired at high commercial rates to represent government agencies facing employment discrimination charges, to handle disputes with government contractors, and to assist in bargaining with federal unions.
One agency hired a New York lawyer at $205 an hour to fight its landlord over the amount it paid in rent.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which spent $34.2 million on outside counsel in 1983 and the first nine months of 1984, paid as much as $285 an hour to lawyers from the New York firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Documents submitted with Dinkins' testimony show that the federal government paid just over $1.2 million a year in fees to outside attorneys in civil rights cases between 1981 and 1983. In U.S. District Court here, where fees tend to be higher than in other parts of the country, the average hourly fee rose from about $70 to just under $100 an hour in that period.
Private attorneys representing the government received about $25 million a year over the past two years. The hourly fees vary from agency to agency, but almost uniformly exceeded $100 an hour.
The Office of Management and Budget has no government-wide regulations on how much outside lawyers may be paid or what types of work they may do. The Justice Department enforces a $75-an-hour cap for private attorneys representing federal employes whom the department cannot represent, but few other federal agencies appear to have specific policies.
Several agencies with heavy litigation responsibilities, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, use no outside lawyers.
The government banking regulatory agencies, on the other hand, use outside legal assistance extensively. The Journal found that the FDIC had made payments to 644 law firms in the last two years.