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Senate OKs requiring AG to let board review some lawyer contracts

The attorney general would be required to run some high dollar contracts by a review board before using taxpayer dollars to hire private attorneys to represent the state in some legal matters, under a bill passed Wednesday by the Mississippi Senate.

Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairman Charlie Ross, R-Brandon, said the proposal would apply to contracts worth more than $1 million.

The proposals would be sent to the Contract Review Board for consideration, but the attorney general would not have to act on the board’s suggestions, Ross said.

“I think this will assure we get the best bang for the buck,” he said. “It will provide accountability and oversight.”

During the Senate debate, Sen. Gloria Williamson, D-Philadelphia, said the Legislature should not put restraints on the attorney general.

“He’s suing on behalf of the people of Mississippi, not on behalf of the Legislature, not on behalf of the executive directors, but on behalf of the people,” Williamson said. “Why in the world would you want to handicap this man by sending (contracts) to a review board that doesn’t have a clue about legal contracts to begin with?”

Attorney General Jim Hood said his office has brought in $164 million from corporate wrongdoers and is currently working on more than 3,400 civil cases, only 18 of which involve “outside counsel hired on a contingency fee basis.”

“This politically motivated bill has been introduced in other states by similar corporate groups in an attempt to prevent the state from catching them defrauding consumers,” Hood said. “In retaining and managing outside counsel, we use an open and transparent process. With respect to hourly contracts, the office diligently negotiates the lowest possible hourly rates.”

There has long been concern over the way attorney generals have divided out lucrative contracts to private lawyers in the past, often accompanied by accusations of favoritism.

The most recent complaints came when the state paid over $14 million last year to Booneville attorneys Joey Langston and Tim Balducci for representing the state against MCI. The lawyers helped collect $100 million in back taxes from the telecommunications company.

The most lucrative payment came in the 1990s when Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, who was hired by then-Attorney General Mike Moore, helped win a $250 billion settlement with tobacco companies. Scruggs has said he earned more than $840 million.

Ross said that if an attorney general sought bids, he could likely find lawyers to work on an hourly basis or lower contingency rates than they have in the past.

“These corporate supporters of Ross’ political bill are not seeking to assist the Attorney General in hiring outside counsel, they are merely attempting to stop my office from pursuing companies who have taken advantage of our citizens,” Hood said.

Ross said he proposed the bill “in good faith” and is not accusing the attorney generals office of any wrongdoing.

However, “This proposal is designed to require you to get multiple proposals, so if there is favoritism it would come to light,” he said.

The bill is Senate Bill 2617.