By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – In a political environment that was already hostile for Democratic Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, the veteran AG apparently decided to – as the old Holmes Brothers blues song intones – “run through Hell in gasoline drawers.”
To that end, Hood has hired his former boss and a former state Supreme Court justice to handle Mississippi’s claims against British Petroleum (BP) related to the 2010 explosion and fire on Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico that was leased to BP. Former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore and former state Supreme Court Justice Rueben Anderson got the contract.
The 2010 offshore explosion and fire killed 11 (with Mississippians among the dead), injured others and results in an estimated 210 million barrels of oil being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico – making the event the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Mississippi and other Gulf states suffered significant economic and environmental damages.
There seems little debate over whether the state should seek to recover those damages from BP. To that end, Hood wasn’t shy about revealing his reasoning for bringing Anderson and Moore on as outside counsels in the litigation.
In a statement, Hood said: “I chose Justice Anderson, who has a reputation which is beyond reproach, for his gentlemanly negotiation skills and General Moore because of his experience in negotiating the largest settlement on behalf of the state in the nation’s history.”
Hood’s statement sounds reasonably at face value. Anderson’s reputation is indeed exemplary and Moore was eventually named the lead negotiator of the Master Settlement Agreement in the 1998 lawsuit against the nation’s four largest tobacco companies by 46 states. Moore indeed negotiated the largest settlement on behalf of the state in history. But to do so, Moore hired former uber-lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs – who had been one of Moore’s largest political donors – and other private attorneys as outside counsels to represent the state in the tobacco lawsuit, which eventually saw Big Tobacco settle for $246 billion. Mississippi got some $4.1 billion of that sum.
Scruggs earned hundreds of millions from the Mississippi litigation, part of an estimated $1.6 billion in total fees from the national tobacco litigation. Scruggs was later convicted of judicial bribery and is serving a five-year federal prison sentence.
The influence of Scruggs and other millionaire trial lawyers who battled business and medical interests over tort reform in the political arena and what non-lawyers perceive as the outsized legal fees awarded in outside counsel cases which just happen to end up in the laps of political supporters has led Republicans now controlling both houses of the state Legislature to seek “sunshine” reforms of the outside counsel process.
Hood has said lawmakers are attempting to usurp his constitutional authority.
But in hiring Moore and Anderson as outside counsel for the BP litigation, Hood ignited more criticism by structuring the “retention agreement” with no fixed legal fees or percentages of the settlement. The contract calls for their “reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses” to be paid by “one or more of the parties legally responsible for the incident” or for them to be compensated for any “reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses”
Such vagaries in a retention agreement for outside counsel attorneys in litigation that potentially involves hundreds of millions of dollars doesn’t exactly make Hood’s case that some oversight of the outside counsel process isn’t warranted. Look for the Legislature to expedite those outside counsel “sunshine” bills.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or email@example.com.