Nixon's latest suit bolsters 2008 gubernatorial campaign

Legal News Line Dec. 15, 2006, 8:56am

Jay Nixon

JEFFERSON CITY -- Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon's declared run for Missouri Governor in 2008 has already put plenty of noses out of joint in the state's bureaucracies. And observers believe there's more where that came from. On Wednesday Nixon further antagonized already tense relations between his office and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) by filing a lawsuit against St. Louis-based energy company AmerenUE over last year's collapse of a hydroelectric reservoir in southeast Missouri. The DNR revealed today that it had already agreed on a settlement agreement with AmerenUE in the case for more than $100 million, which Nixon's lawsuit subsequently trumped. The DNR had been negotiating with AmerenUE since April and in June removed Nixon, whose office represents state officials in legal disputes, from the case, according to Wednesday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That report quoted DNR officials referring to Nixon's lawsuit as "political grandstanding." And less than two weeks ago, Missouri's Gaming Commission voted to dump Nixon as its legal counsel and called on a branch of the Supreme Court to investigate him for possible ethics violations. That followed Nixon publicly opposing the Gaming Commission's recent takeover of a floundering casino in southeast Missouri. Nixon's recent moves are all part of a grander scheme to seize the governor's mansion in 2008 from incumbent Republican Matt Blunt, who is seeking re-election, according to political analysts. "Jay Nixon is very good at getting his name in the news, which a lot of people don't like," said Ken Warren, professor of Political Science at St. Louis University. "He's a populist and very good at choosing his issues." Nixon has already declared himself a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2008 and Warren expects him to run unopposed despite misgivings within the Missouri Democratic Party. Warren also believes he will easily defeat Blunt in the gubernatorial election, describing the incumbent as having "George W. Bush-like approval ratings." Warren says the recent spats with the DNR and Gaming Commission are typical examples of Nixon's preference for making end-runs around state agencies and appealing directly to voters on crucial issues. Rural Missourians are strongly opposed to gambling, while thousands in the St. Louis area recently lost power for days following storm damage to AmerenUE power lines. Nixon's lawsuit against AmerenUE, filed a year to the day after the collapse of the Taum Sauk reservoir near Lesterville in December 2005, seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages, restitution for local residents and businesses, and state costs. "The company's reckless conduct was inexcusable and only sheer luck prevented a massive loss of life," Nixon stated on filing. DNR officials countered that their $100 million settlement agreement with AmerenUE included a $10 million fine - one of the largest ever sought by the DNR - with most of the remainder earmarked for restoring damaged state parks. But Nixon said there would be no state settlement without his signature, prompting DNR Director Doyle Childers to term Nixon's lawsuit against AmerenUE "very premature." Earlier this month Nixon slammed the Missouri Gaming Commission's decision to assume management of the Casino Aztar in Caruthersville after the original acquirers had problems getting a Missouri gaming license. After Nixon denounced the proposal as "horrendous public policy" the Commission asked an arm of the Missouri Supreme Court to review whether Nixon's statements violated attorney-client privilege. But such actions are only likely to strengthen Nixon's image in Missouri come election time. "He seems to know which fights to pick that are most popular with Missouri voters," Warren said. Plus, he added, "Nixon's timing is impeccable." With popular victories like these under his belt, Warren expects Nixon to launch more easy-target, business-based lawsuits over the next two years until the gubernatorial election. But he also expects Nixon's office to choose their targets carefully. "They won't fight anything that isn't really unpopular and they won't pick suits they know they can't win," Warren noted. Given Nixon's track record as attorney general, Warren says the most likely targets on his hit list will be businesses contracted by the state in typically unpopular sectors like nursing homes and prison services. At the federal level, contractors in Iraq could also be targeted. "He looks at the poll data and sees what battles to choose," Warren said. "He knows how to pick his issues."

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