Sunshine bill passes through Miss. Senate

John O'Brien Feb. 7, 2007, 5:20pm


JACKSON, Miss. - Mississippi is one step away from shining a brighter light on the practices of its Attorney General's office.

Senate Bill 2482, written by Republican state Sen. Charlie Ross, was approved by the Senate on Wednesday, the day before the Legislature's deadline for original floor action, and now must only be approved by the House of Representatives.

"It's gotta go through the House. Hopefully it will be given fair consideration in the house, and if it is, it's my anticipation that it will pass," Ross said in an interview.

His bill, which would take effect July 1, would impact the Attorney General's office currently held by Jim Hood.

It stipulates that should a state agency and Hood take different positions on a policy that ends up in court, then the agency has the right to retain outside counsel to represent it. Also, state agencies must be notified within seven days notice of any lawsuits involving it.

"We had a few instances where the attorney general sued on behalf of the agency, and they didn't hear about it until after it was filed," Ross said. "That violates common sense."

The bill is most publicly known for setting guidelines on the attorney general's practice of hiring outside counsel to represent the state. Hood has drawn criticism over a 2005 settlement with MCI concerning back taxes owed the state as a result of the 2002 collapse of its predecessor, Worldcom.

Hood hired Boonesville attorney Joey Langston, a campaign contributor, to represent the Attorney General's Office as a special assistant attorney general.

As a result of the settlement, Langston's firm received $14 million, paying a Louisiana firm that also contributed to Hood's campaign $7 million for first noticing the alleged problem.

The bill requires that anytime attorneys fees are reasonably expected to surpass $1 million and outside counsel will be used, Hood must gather three proposals from law firms and submit them to a contract review board.

The board will make its recommendation to Hood, who can accept or reject their opinion.

"The idea is to have another set of eyes that will force him to be a little bit careful and choose the best attorney," said Ross, who is running for the state's Lieutenant Governor position and has previously been awarded the Civil Justice Achievement Award by the American Tort Reform Association.

Ross has said that the bill will correct a situation presented during the MCI case, where no records were kept during negotiations and there was no way to verify how much work Langston's firm performed.

"That certainly raises eyebrows," he said. "And that's why we're requiring the three proposals.

"It's a minimum of three and it's looked at by the contract review board. It may be a law firm that gives huge campaign donations may be the best law firm, but nobody knew about the existence of that contract until the settlement was announced.

"This will give us a little bit of sunshine. That way there will be a little bit of a deterrent from people doing things they might otherwise do."

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