The Mississippi House again debated a bill aimed at rolling back the powers of the state attorney general. And again, it passed. Dubbed the Sunshine Act, HB 211 lets state agencies circumvent the AG's office, who normally handles the state's legal affairs, and hire their own lawyers whenever the agency perceives a conflict of interest is present. Republicans who've pushed the bill claim that transparency is needed in the process of hiring private law firms to do contract work. To that rationale, Democrats say poppycock -- the bill is all about neutering the state's last Democratic statewide officeholder, Jim Hood, who doesn't always play nice with the state's Republican officeholders. Or, at least Hood doesn't always play how the GOP wants him to play. This morning, the House adopted the negotiated conference report on the bill. The Senate is still considering the conference report. If it's adopted, it will go to Gov. Phil Bryant's desk, where he's likely to sign it faster than you can say "Satan wins."
Here's the statement from Hood's office on the House's adoption of the bill's conference report:
[i]May 1, 2012
Statement from Attorney General Jim Hood on HB211:
If HB 211 becomes law, the more than 200 men and women of the Attorney General's Office who now help shield our residents from corporate wrongdoers will no longer be able to protect them. And that's why every effort must be made to put down this short-sighted attempt to strip the people of a constitutionally empowered Attorney General and instead hire a barrel full of hand-picked lawyers doing the bidding of a few politically minded individuals. Not only is it a recipe for disaster legally and ethically, it will cost taxpayers millions of extra dollars each year .
Most frightening is that House Bill 211 prevents Mississippi from speaking in one, united legal voice. When facing corporate wrongdoers, like BP, Mississippi's best chance for full recovery of the state's damages is to fight BP together. House Bill 211 could allow any agency allegedly affected by the BP spill to hire lawyers, go to court and settle claims, thereby fracturing Mississippi's united defense against corporate wrongdoing. The legislators pushing this bill should heed our Supreme Court, which has repeatedly said that "the Attorney General alone has the right to represent the state.”
Think about this: If HB 211 were now law, the state would have received only $3.5 million from the MCI Worldcom lawsuit because the State Tax Commision would have settled the case. But because the Attorney General's Office had the authority and good sense to pursue the lawsuit, we collected $100 million for our taxpayers. That's just one example of what would happen if this misguided effort succeeds. There would be no healthcare trust fund or $4 billion tobacco settlement because the then-governor and the Division of Medicaid would have overrode the AG's efforts to secure that money for our state.
The fact is that the current system works well. Over the past seven years, the Attorney General's Office has recovered more than $500 million for our taxpayers from wrongdoers and it did not cost the taxpayers one dime. The law already allows state agencies to take legal action on their own if the Attorney General's Office declines or even opposes such action. But our law is clear -- the state of Mississippi speaks with one voice in the courtroom and it comes through your Attorney General.
I urge every citizen to call their legislator at 601-359-3770 and ask them to vote no on the conference report for House Bill 211.
Attorney General Jim Hood State of Mississippi[/i]