TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - The eyes of tort reformers -- and of Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum's staff -- remain on Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul Thursday.
That's because Cretul has the power to initiate a vote on a new transparency bill that the business community feels would be the strongest in any state attorney general's office. Cretul must call for the vote by Friday or the bill would die, having already gained Senate approval.
While much of the media coverage remains fixed on lawmakers extending their session a week to deal with budget-only issues, the clock is ticking for the transparency bill modeled after McCollum's own practices.
Among the regulations set forth are a cap on attorneys fees in contingency fee cases, the requirement of time sheets to determine how much work the outside counsel performed, the availability to the public of any contingency fee contract and a document signed by the attorney general everytime outside counsel is hired stating its help is essential to winning the case.
The original bill made it through the House of Representatives but was amended by the Senate. Sen. Dennis Jones, a Republican, pushed the amendment, which would allow private attorneys to earn more than the cap system allows.
The system provides a certain amount of attorneys fees for each tier of an award or settlement and allows a maximum of $50 million. The amendment says the caps may be exceeded if the attorney general determines if there were exigent or unusual circumstances or specialized legal knowledge or experience was needed.
If the attorney general makes that motion, then a majority of Florida's cabinet (governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and agricultural commissioner) must vote with the attorney general to make it happen.
"All those issues should come before the public forum," said Joe Jacquot, McCollum's chief of staff. "That's important, regardless of individuals' supporting that amendment or not. This bill would bring those issues to a public forum.
"The Attorney General would like to see the bill become law and the business community has said it would like to see the same."
Contracts perceived by some as "pay-to-play" have been a hot topic around the country recently.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has drawn recent criticism for his decision to hire Houston-based plaintiffs firm Bailey Perrin Bailey to file suit against Janssen Pharmaceutica over alleged off-label marketing of one of its prescription drugs.
State Attorney General Tom Corbett was not impressed with BPB's evidence at the meeting and declined to file the suit himself. Rendell hired BPB to represent the state, but has received criticism because the firm contributed $75,000 directly to his 2006 campaign, $16,000 in airplane travel and $25,000 to the Democratic Governors Association.
New Mexico Attorney General Gary King was also criticized in the Wall Street Journal for his agreement BPB, and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has also hired the firm, which donated $50,000 to him.
Hood also hired campaign contributors who turned out to be felons for the case against Eli Lilly & Co.
Cretul threw Rep. Julio Robaina off the Florida bill's committee for adding an amendment, though his differed from the Senate amendment.
Robaina's amendment did not provide for a vote by the Cabinet.
"The bill passed out of the Senate today is the strongest bill in the nation, bringing transparency and accountability in the Attorney General's Office's contracting with private attorneys," said George Meros, a lawyer and lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"But for speaker Cretul's leadership and courage, the bill would not be a national leader. The business community enthusiastically supports the bill."
The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform owns Legal Newsline.
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.