Links to Okla. AG land lawyers contingency prize: Big Chicken

Legal News Line Feb. 12, 2008, 7:40am

Mike Turpen (L)

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Scoring a contingency fee contract from Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson to take on the poultry industry's biggest names in a pollution lawsuit takes connections. Fortunately for the Tulsa-based law firm Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison & Lewis (Riggs Abney), they have AG connections in spades. Riggs Abney was the first major law firm to come on board what's become known as Democrat AG Edmondson's Big Chicken suit. Edmondson filed a lawsuit in June 2005 against chicken farms run by 14 major producers - including Tyson Foods and Cargill - in upstream Arkansas claiming pollution of Oklahoma's waterways and seeking unspecified damages. Since then, Texas environmental law specialists Miller Keffer, LLP and controversial big-name plaintiffs' litigators Motley Rice have joined Edmondson's crew - also on contingency, which could mean up to one-third of the final payout. Neither, however, has a relationship with the AG like Riggs Abney. The Tulsa firm's first public connection with Edmondson, who has been Oklahoma's AG since 1992, appeared in the late 1990s. Riggs Abney was one of several Oklahoma firms that worked with Edmondson on the state's tobacco settlement, which landed Oklahoma's private attorneys $250 million from the final settlement - and Riggs Abney $30 million. In the years since then, AG Edmondson and the Oklahoma Democratic Party have counted Riggs Abney as amongst their most faithful contributors. In the years 2001-2004, one researcher discovered, 15 attorneys at Riggs Abney donated almost $50,000 to Edmondson's re-election campaigns. Partners M. David Riggs and Mike Turpen were Edmondson's largest individual donors within the firm, giving $8,600 and $8,100 respectively. Riggs has also donated several thousand dollars to the presidential campaigns of John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry in recent years, records show. Riggs served as a Democrat in the Oklahoma legislature from 1971 until 1988. Records of his donations to state Democratic causes date back to 1990 and include a $250 donation to Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. Turpen's post-Big Tobacco donations to Edmondson, a long-time friend, included the firm's single largest gift of $4,000 and three of $1,000. Turpen served as Oklahoma's Democratic attorney general from 1983 to 1987, four years before Edmondson was elected AG, after a stint as Muskogee County District Attorney. Long a well-known Oklahoma media figure and a partner at Riggs Abney since 1987, Turpen is rumored to have influenced Edmondson in mid-2003 to prosecute failed communications giant WorldCom despite an on-going U.S Attorney's investigation of the company. Edmondson was perceived as sabotaging the federal probe, which had been progressing for more than a year. Turpen at the time was serving as an outside counsel to rival telco SBC, and one report claimed Turpen had asked Edmondson to prosecute WorldCom. Edmondson instead claimed "the lack of any serious sanction against WorldCom, either corporately or its individual officers," as the main reason he brought charges. Two years later Riggs Abney was made lead attorney in Edmondson's Big Chicken suit and has since helped rack up several million dollars in legal fees for Oklahoma's taxpayers, with no end in sight. The AG's lawyers most recently tried to stop the spread of chicken waste altogether in the area - a major inconvenience to small poultry operators. A legal win in Big Chicken, it's safe to say, would be Riggs Abney's biggest to date through its Edmondson connection. But watch that subprime mortgage space.

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