OXFORD – To borrow funny lady Joan Rivers’ line, “Can we talk?” Mississippi’s new “sunshine law” is not what it’s advertised to be.
It’s not about allowing citizens to learn more about what public officials are doing.
It’s about trying to curb the enthusiasm of Attorney General Jim Hood in signing contracts with private attorneys to file suits on Mississippi’s behalf.
It comes with a cost because, like them or not, these cases have been part of the state’s revenue picture for almost 20 years.
As the only Democrat in statewide office, Hood said he expected a flat-out assault by the Republican administration and Legislature this year. In May, Gov. Phil Bryant signed the culmination of Round One. The new law, among other things, requires full disclosure of contract terms and a degree of vetting of “outside” attorneys. Some sunshine. But mostly rain on Hood’s parade.
Nobody likes trial lawyers, right? Ambulance chasers. That’s what they are. So flushing them out into the open is a good thing, right?
Well, except for the fact that their efforts have ginned up hundreds of millions of dollars for the public treasury in this, the poorest state in the union.
It all started when former Attorney General Mike Moore, also a Democrat, up and filed suit against Big Tobacco. Kirk Fordice, Mississippi’s first Republican governor in more than a century, was apoplectic. He immediately asked the state Supreme Court to shut down Moore’s case, insisting that the governor or the Legislature or someone else had to approve before the people’s name could be signed to a lawsuit for damages. Nope, the justices said. As the chief legal officer, Moore was perfectly within his authority to go it alone.
Now what stunk the case up more than an overflowing ashtray was Moore’s alliance with corporation-suing zealot Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, now serving time in a separate case. It happened that Scruggs was Moore’s mentor and his No. 1 campaign contributor. Scruggs and company were secretive about their take in the case, using pretty standard lawyer techniques to mask their fees (estimated at $1 billion or so) and collecting them over time.
But aside from the stench is that Big Tobacco (through its customers) is paying the state Big Money to offset Medicaid and other state expenses in treating people with tobacco-related illnesses.
The 2011 payment was $113 million. Compare that to state revenue from casinos, which was $150 million during the same period. It’s not a pittance. Over 25 years, payments are expected to total $3.6 billion.
No case since Big Tobacco has generated that kind of money, but there have been several – some smellier than others – and each has plopped millions into the state’s bank account at opportune times. That AG campaign donors have gotten rich is a side effect.
As for Hood, his position is that the state doesn’t have the financial depth or in-house staff to press years-long complicated tort cases and that people advocate against companies that exploit taxpayers. Further, he says, and it’s true, that he has been transparent on the fee arrangements he has made with “outside” lawyers. So the sunshine law is really about reducing his authority, which, remember, a former Supreme Court said, is fairly solid.
The current Supreme Court, looking at previous deals in which settlements have required losing defendants to pay attorneys directly rather than having the funds flow through state channels, says that is improper. The court says all future cash – if there is any – should flow through state accounts. No big deal.
It should also be pointed out that when it comes to government openness, Bryant, throughout his career in public service, really has been for sunshine. He has walked the walk for public access to meetings and records, even when his supporters in city halls and county courthouses would have preferred otherwise. It’s just in this situation he’s perverting the term.
The moral aspect can be framed this way: Is it better for a state to be “business-friendly” or “money hungry?” It’s a nice question, but remember states have the power to take the property of a widow and her little children if she doesn’t pay her taxes. Governments claim to have a conscience, but only when it’s convenient.
We could use more sunshine in Mississippi government, but this new law is about stopping the suits, making the attorney general kneel before the throne of corporate America.
By the way, wonder what will replace the revenue those lawsuits have been providing?
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.