Hood critical of bill that would allow officials to hire outside attorneys

Jessica M. Karmasek Feb. 8, 2012, 2:13pm



JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is accusing state lawmakers of "railroading" through the state Legislature a bill that would take away some of his office's authority.

House Bill 122 would allow state officials, agencies, boards, commissions, departments or institutions to hire their own outside attorneys over the state's top lawyer.

The measure also would require the attorney general or any other state official who pays a lawyer more than $100,000 to put the contracts online. Hood is already doing so, voluntarily.

Hood said HB 122 violates the Mississippi Constitution, which gives the attorney general the sole authority to speak in court with one voice on behalf of the State.

More so, the attorney general -- the only Democrat to hold a statewide elected office -- took issue with how the bill is being handled by lawmakers.

Hood, who said he had a budget committee hearing to attend Tuesday morning, asked Mark Baker, chairman of the House Judiciary A Committee, to give him a day to read over the legislation before holding a hearing on it.

Baker, a Republican, refused.

So, Hood said he went into the House committee hearing after the budget hearing, asking to speak, but that Baker refused to recognize him.

"I am so disappointed that I was not even allowed to address committee members, many of whom are newly elected lawmakers, to provide them with my perspective concerning the dangers of this bill.

"The chairman of today's hearing refused to even allow me to testify," he said in a statement Tuesday.

Baker told The Associated Press that Hood has had "plenty of time" to lobby and state his opinion on the bill.

"This bill has been around for five or six years, so I didn't see the need for a hearing," he told the AP.

Baker also noted that Hood didn't ask to speak during the meeting -- that he requested a separate public hearing. "If he had asked, I would have recognized him," he told the AP.

Hood said the least lawmakers could have done was to give committee members a chance to hear from himself "the truth" about the bill.

"It is obvious that by the way they introduced this so-called 'sunshine bill' under the cover of darkness last night and passed it out of committee at 8:30 this morning that they did not want the people to hear the truth," he said Tuesday.

"I hope the voters in (House) Speaker (Philip) Gunn's district in Clinton and Chairman Baker's district in Brandon will call them tonight and ask why they railroaded a bill through without even giving the people's lawyer an opportunity to speak to the committee."

Hood argues that HB 122 seeks to strip the attorney general's constitutional authority and amend several statutes in the process.

"The attorney general is put in place to defend the State's interests and to provide a unified voice to the State on all legal matters," he said.

"If this bill passes, then agency heads with agendas and interests of their own will be allowed to pursue those interests on the taxpayers' dime over the State's interest as a whole with no oversight."

Hood noted that there have been several cases where agency directors have been sued for sexual harassment.

"Their interests have been to spend money defending a losing case; whereas, the State's interest was to settle the case and save money on lawyers," he said.

"What you have here is nothing more than an attempt to weaken the power of the attorney general and to create a 'good ole boy' system of doing legal business in this state."

The attorney general said the bill creates a system "ripe for cronyism, chaos, more government and duplication of services," calling it a "severe waste" of taxpayer dollars.

"Corporate wrongdoers and other criminals will celebrate if this bill passes," he said. "I hope lawmakers will see through this ludicrousness and do what is right."

As of Wednesday afternoon, the bill was on its third reading. The full House is expected to consider it Thursday.

Baker told the AP that the bill is meant to make sure that the attorney general can't override the wishes of a statewide elected official.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, the Republican who sponsored the legislation, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Gunn, also a defense attorney at the Jackson law firm of Wells, Marble and Hurst, has long been critical of Hood and his office -- most recently, its handling of legal settlement monies.

Days before the Nov. 8 election, Hood announced his office reached settlements with three pharmaceutical manufacturers, putting millions in the state's coffers.

Hours later, former Gov. Haley Barbour, who was regularly at odds with Hood, sent a letter to joint legislative committee members saying September's revenue estimate included $20 million in so-called "revenue" from the settlement of such cases.

The state, Barbour warned lawmakers at the time, would only receive a fraction of those funds -- a significant portion still is owed to the federal government -- and to keep that mind in looking at the state's budget.

Hood's characterization of the settlement monies had some lawmakers, including Gunn, again questioning whether legislative action is needed to take away his authority to appropriate such revenue.

Gunn has argued that the attorney general is not elected to decide how taxpayer money is to be spent. That, he has said, is a job for the Legislature.

That is why Gunn, who has served in the House for eight years, wants to see an attorney general "sunshine law" passed in Mississippi.

Previous attempts to pass such legislation have been blocked because of the House's Democratic control.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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