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March 28th, 2012

Back to His Old Pay-to-Play Ways? Mississippi AG Angers Lawmakers with Latest Outside Counsel Hire

After Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s political campaign generated a misleading email to supporters at the end of February, asking for their help to defeat the so-called Sunshine Act pending in the state legislature, ATRA’s director of communications called the AG on it.

In a March 1 email to Hood, shared with Mississippi media, ATRA’s Darren McKinney wrote that if the bill becomes law, “your sweeping authority over the hiring of outside counsel on behalf of the state [would] be subjected to public scrutiny and otherwise shared more broadly with other state officials . . .” and thus “your capacity to curry campaign contributions and other political support from wealthy private-sector plaintiffs’ attorneys to whom you have in the past granted generous no-bid contingency fee contracts could well be lessened.”

Well, rather than lay low, Hood has, right on cue, given Mississippians something new to howl about.  According to syndicated Mississippi columnist Sid Salter, published recently in the Hattiesburg American, Hood has hired his old boss, former Mississippi AG Mike Moore, and former state Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson to prosecute Mississippi’s lawsuit against British Petroleum (BP) for the 2010 drilling rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“There seems little debate over whether the state should seek to recover . . . damages from BP,” Salter writes, but Moore’s storied connections to legendary and now federally imprisoned trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs serve as a reminder of the state’s unsavory history of pay-to-play relationships between its AGs and wealthy personal injury lawyers.

Geoff Penders, political editor of the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun Herald expressed similar sentiment in writing of the Moore hire, in particular: “I can’t think of another lawyer buddy Hood could hire that would more enrage the legislative leadership, shy of some that have been disbarred and/or jailed for judge bribing.”

“The influence of Scruggs and other millionaire trial lawyers” who’ve been awarded “outsized legal fees in outside counsel cases,” explains Salter, “has led Republican lawmakers now controlling both houses of the Mississippi Legislature to seek ‘sunshine’ reforms” to bring greater transparency and accountability to the hiring of outside counsel.

Now Hood has invited even more scrutiny since his open-ended, no-bid, closed door retention agreement with Moore and Anderson specifies payment only of “reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses.” 

“Such vagaries in a retention agreement for . . . litigation that potentially involves hundreds of millions of dollars,” concludes Salter, “doesn’t exactly make Hood’s case that some oversight of the outside counsel process isn’t warranted. Look for the Legislature to expedite those outside counsel ‘sunshine’ bills.”

Let us all sing “Hallelujah!”

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