Court: Lawyers paid improperly

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Private attorneys who entered into contracts with Attorney General Jim Hood to handle lawsuits on behalf of the state improperly received millions of dollars in payment, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
But the court did not say the attorneys should not be paid, just that the procedure followed was not correct.
The Supreme Court sent back to Hinds County Circuit Court two lawsuits in which the state Auditor’s office claimed the Legislature must approve the fees.
That court originally had ruled against the Auditor’s office. It will now determine whether the fees should be returned so that they can be repaid through a special fund in the attorney general’s office.
The two cases involved:
* $14 million paid to a group of attorneys, including Booneville’s Joey Langston, for the settlement of a lawsuit against MCI-WorldCom for $100 million in back taxes owed the state.
* $10 million paid to a group of attorneys for the settlement of a lawsuit against Microsoft for $90 million for allegations of violations of the state’s consumer protection laws.
Gov. Phil Bryant, as auditor, filed a lawsuit in December 2007 claiming settlement funds for the MCI case, including attorneys’ fees, were public funds that only the Legislature could appropriate. Current Auditor Stacey Pickering continued the Bryant lawsuit, and added a similar complaint in the Microsoft case.
Hood argued the fees paid to the lawyers who handled the lawsuits were not subject to legislative oversight and appropriation.
Pickering claimed victory Thursday, but the court opinions provide some solace to Hood.
In the 5-3 majority opinion, Justice Jess Dickinson wrote that the private attorneys must be paid through an appropriation of the Legislature or through the AG’s contingent fund. Justice George Carlson Jr. did not participate in the MCI decision, but joined the majority in the Microsoft decision.
In a separate opinion, Justice Randy Pierce, who joined the Dickinson majority, indicated that had the attorney general only deposited the settlement funds in his contingent account and then paid the attorneys from that, “we would not be here.”
The justices who joined the majority opinion, including Dickinson, signed on to Pierce’s opinion.
In a statement, Hood said, “These opinions by the Supreme Court simply give us direction on how to pay the attorneys that worked on these cases and in future cases.”
Pickering said the opinions “set a clear precedent in Mississippi ensuring that the purse strings… are to be controlled by the Mississippi Legislature,” while he conceded that several issues are left to be resolved.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com