Bill to Hamstring AG Office? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Bill to Hamstring AG Office?


Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and the Mississippi Senate are pressing for a new law that would force a competitive bidding process on plaintiff lawyers looking to contract with the Mississippi attorney general's office. Bryant and some senators say the bill, which they call a "sunshine law," will further open attorney general/private attorney contracts to public inspection.

Senate Bill 2188 will require contracts worth more than $500,000 in legal fees to be inspected by a Personal Service Contract Review Board and force the attorney general to issue requests for proposals to at least three separate law firms or individual attorneys before entering into the contract. It also limits fees paid to outside attorneys to $1 million, not including incurred costs and other fees.

The bill quickly passed the Judiciary A and Appropriations committees last week, and passed the full Senate last Friday.

Judiciary A Chairman Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, told The Clarion-Ledger that the "sunshine law" is following the heels of the recent indictment of attorney Dickie Scruggs and the subsequent guilty pleas of Mississippi attorney Joey Langston and others for corruption. Langston donated heavily to Attorney General Jim Hood, while earning $14 million in fees for helping Hood's office sue defunct telecommunications giant WorldCom. Langston earned $115 million for the state in the WorldCom suit, which legislators and Gov. Haley Barbour quickly funneled into the state budget to fill holes.

Still, Barbour and other Republicans have questioned Langston's $14 million attorneys' fee. Langston specifically pled guilty on Jan. 7 to charges of trying to buy influence from Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter in Wilson v. Scruggs, and conservative pundits are itching to connect Langston's wrongdoing to Hood. Bryant was quick to tell reporters that the indictment and guilty plea have added a sense of urgency to the bill.

While Fillingane would not say how the sunshine bill would have affected the problems with either Scruggs or Langston, he did say it would have allowed taxpayers to view exactly what they were paying for.

"Had this law been in place at the time, we would probably have had a lot more information on what Mr. Langston's firm did in exchange for the $14 million he received from the state," Fillingane said. Langston's firm actually received the $14 million in attorney's fees from WorldCom, not from the state.

Hood said he was fine with tracking time sheets and expense reports and submitted his own sunshine proposal—approved by the American Tort Association—to the Legislature. Hood's proposal also calls on the attorney general's office to retain time sheets and expense reports in future contracts. Hood said the bidding process imposed by SB 2188 would undercut the attorney general's office in pursuing plaintiff lawsuits, however.

"We had a tax commission sitting out there dumb, fat and happy, saying we're going to take $3 million from WorldCom for back taxes, and if some young lawyer hadn't already been suing WorldCom and reading the case discovery, he would've never found the document that showed we were owed (a hundred million) dollars," Hood said.

"idding sounds great, but they're not going ... to bring us plum cases if we're only going to bid it out to other lawyers and throw them to the curb."

Fillingane said the first lawyer would only have a small risk of losing his tasty idea to another lawyer, explaining that "SB 2188 doesn't tell Hood who he has to pick," but Hood said the risk was enough to send any prospective plaintiff attorneys elsewhere, especially considering the risk of the attorney losing his intellectual property.

Langston, for example, probably would not have approached the attorney general with the $115 million suit if Hood would have mass-published Langston's details of the WorldCom case to every hungry lawyer on the planet in the form of a bid proposal.

Fillingane said the information in a bid proposal would not likely prove enough to be considered intellectual property.

Hood's own proposition for a sunshine law also requires that the attorney general file outside attorney contracts with the secretary of state's office, and stipulates that the attorney general notify the state agency directors before it files any suit—all similar to SB 2188, but without the bid requirement. Hood said the bid requirement embedded in SB 2188 is a Republican move to protect their big corporate donors from accountability.

"Look at the corporations contributing to the big Republicans like Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant who are backing this legislation. Look at Microsoft—we're suing them and KPMG/WorldCom. Both were big Republican supporters. These are huge companies that want to stop being held accountable for the damage they do, or for overcharging for services or violating anti-trust laws. This is all about money."

The House Judiciary Committee must adopt SB 2188 before the bill can move to the governor's office for final approval.

Previous Comments

Bit of a problem with this graph: Langston, for example, probably would not have approached the attorney general with the $115 million suit if Hood would have mass-published Langston’s details of the WorldCom case to every hungry lawyer on the planet in the form of a bid proposal. Langston did not bring the MCI deal to Hood. An attorney named Billy Quin of Lundy & Davis developed the case theory and brought it to the AG. (This was before Quin himself, long after the fact, joined Langston's firm.) Hood then, deciding that Quin, L&D didn't have the heft to make it happen, shopped the case to, supposedly, some number of other attorneys and we're told that Langston's was the only firm to bite. Langston and L&D split the $14 million. Hood, to his own detriment, has never released a list to the public of the other firms he queried regarding the case. Not one other firm in all the state has come forward to state that Hood inquired as to their potential interest in pursuing the case. This matter is far from over.
I am no lawyer, but that bill sure seems flawed. How can you put a cap on the fees? That potentially reduces the amount of money the state might win because I'm not going to work as hard if I know I'm only bringing home $1 million instead of $8 million. But like I said, I'm no lawyer.
...and Insurance Companies and others would be first to know they're about to be sued for real, and who's going to be doing it. They'd have plenty of time to buy off/pay up on their legislative bribes.

Support our reporting -- Follow the MFP.