SID SALTER: Outside counsel legislation not pardon-fight revenge

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – Claims from Democratic state lawmakers that Republican legislation aimed at changing the state’s outside counsel process for the state attorney general’s office is “retaliation” against Attorney General Jim Hood’s stance on former Gov. Haley Barbour’s controversial pardons ignore a substantial amount of Mississippi legal and political history.
State Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, called Senate Bills 2084 and 2102 “retaliation” against Hood against fighting Barbour’s “release of over 200 Mississippi felons, including murderers, rapists and child sex offenders” at the end of Barbour’s second gubernatorial term. The legislation would place limits on the fees outside counsel attorneys can receive from contingency fee contracts with the state. Current law places no limits on attorney’s fees in such suits.
“This retaliatory stunt couldn’t come at a worse time,” said Rep. Bob Evans (D-Monticello). “At this moment, General Hood is working to recover tens of millions owed to the state’s retirement system, now is not the time to tie his hands.” Evans went on to asseRt that Hood had recovered over $500 million for state taxpayers that “didn’t cost taxpayers a dime.”
But the fact of the matter is that the furor over outside counsel contracts has been raging long before Barbour was elected governor and the outside counsel legislation filed this session had absolutely nothing to do with the Barbour pardons.
The outside counsel fight has been ongoing in Mississippi since the late Gov. Kirk Fordice and former Attorney General Mike Moore battled over Mississippi’s $4.1 billion tobacco settlement in the 1990s.
Current Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, while serving as state auditor in 2006, filed suit to get back $14 million in legal fees from the state’s MCI-Worldcom lawsuit – claiming the legal fees belonged to the state and must under law be appropriated by the Legislature. Current Republican State Auditor Stacey Pickering carried on the Bryant lawsuit.
The outside counsel fight also traces back to defrocked super lawyer Dickie Scruggs in the 1990s and the use of proceeds from state tobacco and asbestos litigation as a political weapon. The outside counsel devolved into a broader partisan debate between trial lawyers aligned with Democrats and the business/medical community aligned with Republicans.
In essence, it grew out of the battle between the Scruggs-brainchild ICEPAC
Former Attorney General Mike Moore and former Secretary of State Eric Clark filed suit seeking to force the U.S. Chamber to reveal the source of the $1 million in “soft” money the group spent in the 2000 Mississippi judicial elections. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. A federal appeals court later ruled in favor of the Chamber.
Then-State Medical Association president Dr. John Cook of Brandon accused U.S. Chamber opponents of trying to “excoriate the Chamber for failing to disclose the source of the money it spent on the 2000 state judicial elections, while consistently refusing to mention that the trial lawyers political action committee (ICEPAC) did exactly the same thing with the huge sums of money it collected from out-of-state plaintiff attorneys who want to maintain the status quo in Mississippi’s strike-it-rich court system.”
Hood has battled any attempts to bring accountability to the award of outside counsel legal contracts. Hood contends that such contracts actually represent a savings to the taxpayers, but it’s difficult for watchdog groups to ignore the fact that such contracts have a way of ending up in the hands of large campaign contributors to Hood as they did some of his predecessors in that office.
Finally, the outside counsel issue has generated similar reform efforts in a number of states in recent years in attempts to bring more uniformity, transparency and openness to the outside counsel process.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.