CHARLIE MITCHELL: Trimming AG’s sails has consequences for public

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – The lonely little petunia in Mississippi’s onion patch is Attorney General Jim Hood.
Until this year, Hood, the only Democrat in statewide office for four years, has had a buffer provided via the House of Representatives.
In 2011 elections, however, that buffer – the coalition composed of the Legislative Black Caucus and white Democrats – was removed. Republicans now have majorities in both lawmaking chambers. Hood is on their radar.
In headlines last week was a House committee vote that may empower state agencies, most of them small, to hire their own lawyers.
Under longstanding practices, these operational units of state government – the Board of Cosmetologists, the Board of Animal Health and dozens of others – have had tiny staffs, sometimes one person. They have not had the budget or the authority to hire lawyers.
When they’ve needed legal guidance, for operational or enforcement activities or anything else, they’ve had to ring up the attorney general and ask to borrow a staff lawyer. (There are about 100.)
From one perspective, this is frugal and wise.
Having a bevy of lawyers on the public payroll is, at least in the public’s view, the devil’s work and about as popular as mustard on scrambled eggs. People are always talking about how government should “gain efficiencies.” Hiring one legal staff, on salary and dispatching them on an as-needed basis is, arguably, efficient.
From another perspective, agencies are hamstrung in doing what the Legislature has asked them to do when they can’t get legal support. Too, there’s a problem if the “pool lawyer” isn’t familiar with the agencies to which they are assigned for a day or a week.
Despite these practical considerations, power is the consideration that has likely roiled lawmakers. If the AG’s office doesn’t support what an administrative agency seeks to accomplish, Hood can be stingy in deciding how much attorney time to assign, if any. So, allowing agencies to hire their own lawyers strips Hood of influence and, depending on how things break out, staff and funding.
The other topic centers on a practice initiated by former Attorney General Mike Moore in the heyday of Dickie Scruggs as “King of Torts.” Hiring private attorneys to sue Big Tobacco, computer consultants, utility and drug companies with the taxpayers of Mississippi as their client has been at the sole discretion of the attorney general.
Because the law firms hired for this work are more often than not major donors to the campaign funds of attorneys general, there has been something of a stench about the whole deal.
But on the other hand, in addition to generating lots of millionaire attorneys, the practice has generated hundreds of millions of dollars the state treasury would not have otherwise received. That’s right. Hundreds of millions of dollars. The bulk of one timely settlement seven years ago from telecommunications firm MCI-WorldCom arrived just in the nick of time to pull the Legislature’s bacon out of the fire on the $55 million failed beef plant “investment.” Remember that?
Anyway, some in the Legislature, perhaps a majority now, want “sunshine.” They want a bid system and transparency in how private lawyers win state contracts.
Hood’s stance has been (1) he is transparent. Contracts and fees have been disclosed up front during his tenure, and (2) the bid system won’t work because the tort lawyers who come up with these cases are specialists, most often in big firms that can carry the multimillion-dollar risk of coming up empty-handed. (Just as with the lawyers on TV, they get nothing if they don’t settle or win their cases.)
These matters should not, of course, be only about politics. Decisions on these internal, procedural matters have major consequences for taxpayers. Maybe those factors will be debated. Maybe not.
Either way, it’s worth noting that just a few weeks ago newly elected Republicans were singing a chorus about fairness and equity. They promised not beat up on those now in the minority just to flex their muscle. But considering that Hood sought, but was not granted permission to appear before the committee before it passed the lawyer-hiring bill, it seems Republicans are singing a different song today.
And so is the attorney general, who won’t go away without a fight. Sing along if you wish: “Of all the saddest words that I have ever heard, the saddest is the story told me by a bird. He had spent about an hour, chatting with a flower, and here is the tale the flower told ….”
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.