Second judge: Hood can pay private attorneys

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – A second judge has ruled that Attorney General Jim Hood has authority to pay private attorneys on a contingency basis when they win lawsuits on behalf of the state.
Hinds County Chancellor Denise Owens on Thursday denied state Auditor Stacey Pickering’s request that fees not be awarded to the attorneys hired by Hood to sue computer giant Microsoft.
The suit accused Microsoft of violating antitrust laws by packaging its software in a way that prevented it from being compatible with competitors’ software.
Hood, with the help of private attorneys led by Brent Hazzard of Jackson, settled the lawsuit with Microsoft last year for $100 million.
As part of the settlement, but separate from the $100 million, the private attorneys were awarded $10 million.
Both Pickering and his predecessor as auditor, current Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, have pursued legal action to prevent the attorneys hired by Hood from being paid until the money is appropriated by the state Legislature.
Earlier this year, Circuit Judge Winston Kidd, also of Hinds County, refused to block the disbursement of attorneys fees of $14 million for the settlement of a tax-related case by the state against MCI-World Com.
In that case, Joey Langston of Booneville, who has since been convicted and disbarred for judicial misconduct, and William Quin, now of Ridgeland, were the primary private attorneys.
Hood said the law is clear that the attorney general has the authority to enter into a contingency fee contract with private attorneys, which gives them a percentage of the settlement if they prevail.
If the case does not result in a settlement for the state, the private attorneys receive nothing.
Like Bryant before him, Pickering disagrees. He has appealed the fee ruling in the MCI case to the state Supreme Court.
On Thursday, Hood urged Pickering to drop that lawsuit.
“It is now time for the state auditor to put aside the partisan politics that created these frivolous lawsuits and stop wasting our taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars during a time when Mississippi can ill afford it,” Hood said.
In a letter, Hood also asked Pickering how much the auditor’s office has paid private attorneys pursuing the case.
Pickering said Thursday that he was still tabulating a final amount, but said it was about $400,000.
Pickering said he does not intend to drop the case, but probably will not appeal the ruling in the Microsoft case.
But, he said, if he prevails in the MCI appeal, private attorneys in both cases would have to give the money back to the state until the Legislature appropriates it to them.
In an earlier interview, Pickering said that he believes it is important for the state’s highest court to finally decide the issue.
Hood, a Democrat, has come under criticism – primarily from Republicans – for contracts he has entered into with private attorneys. Both Pickering and Bryant are Republicans.
Hood said he uses private attorneys in only the few cases in which his office lacks the manpower, financial resources and sometimes expertise to proceed without private help.
In those instances, the private attorney who brings the case to him is hired.
He pointed out that in the Microsoft case, the judge wrote that the private attorneys spent $1.7 million of their own money on experts and on other expenses.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.