Fla. AG's office: WSJ spot-on with pay-to-play story

John O'Brien Feb. 3, 2010, 4:42pm


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - Not that he had an advance copy, but Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum could see one of the articles in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal coming.

The WSJ detailed the practice of those in charge of hiring private lawyers to represent pension funds choosing the firms that contributed to their political campaign, focusing specifically on a Massachusetts county pension fund and the Ohio Attorney General's Office.

McCollum recently convinced the board that makes those decisions in his state to certain reforms, including a cap on attorneys fees and increased transparency in the hiring process.

"Transparency and accountability are key to this process, and we should be focused on maximizing recoveries back to the public, not on padding the pockets of private attorneys at the public's expense," McCollum spokesperson Sandi Copes said Wednesday.

She said the pay-to-play issue raised in the WSJ are "the very reason (McCollum) sought and succeeded" in his effort.

State Board of Administration members McCollum, Gov. Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink all voted for McCollum's proposal, which is based on his own personal practices as attorney general. The cap system provides a certain amount of attorneys fees for each tier of an award or settlement and allows a maximum of $50 million.

The measure also provides more readily available public information about contingency fee contracts, such as timesheets and firms' bids.

McCollum is hoping legislation that will make the practice permanent in the state's Attorney General's Office. The same bill stalled in early 2009.

The WSJ report said New York firm Labaton Sucharow has been hired to pursue 10 shareholder lawsuits since 2006 by the Norfolk County, Mass., pension board. Joseph Connolly, the head of the board, has received 68 maximum contributions of $500 from attorneys at the firm and their relatives.

"Plaintiffs' lawyers donate because they think it buys them access to people who make decisions over how pension funds select counsel," said Fred Isquith, a partner at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP, a plaintiffs' firm in New York, in the report.

The report also quoted former Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann, who said, "I have no doubt I received donations with the expectation of work."

After he resigned during a sex scandal, current Attorney General Richard Cordray took over. Five of the firms picked to represent Ohio pension funds have contributed $300,000 to the state Democratic party, the report says. Cordray received almost $2 million from the party.

McCollum chief of staff Joe Jacquot recently said that the transparency measures in McCollum's plan shouldn't be overlooked.

"The cap is not going to stop pay-to-play, but it's certainly an incentive," Jacquot said. "The transparency with the firms on a Web site, the open bidding, that's going to be key."

Copes said she did not know of any state that was considering similar measures to McCollum's.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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