JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - Opponents of Mississippi Auditor Stacey Pickering say he has spent too much time and taxpayer money fighting $14 million in attorneys fees for private lawyers hired to represent the State.

A Hinds County Circuit Court judge recently ruled that attorneys hired by state Attorney General Jim Hood to sue WorldCom over back taxes allegedly owed during the company's bankruptcy. Former Auditor Phil Bryant first challenged the $100 million settlement, saying the attorneys fees should have been given to the state Legislature for appropriation.

Pickering picked up his predecessor's cause. He said he is deciding whether he should appeal the decision.

Forman Perry Watkins Krutz & Tardy represented the firms, which included Joey Langston's former firm. He was one of two attorneys in the case who are now incarcerated for judicial bribery schemes.

"The auditor's ill-advised lawsuit against our clients was never about the law, the facts, or what is fair and honorable - it was always about politics," Forman Perry attorney Fred Krutz said.

"This case should never have been filed by Mr. Bryant and it should never have been continued by Mr. Pickering. Pursuing this claim against our clients has been a tremendous waste of taxpayers' money."

Bryant was running for lieutenant governor when he filed the suit. The firm noted that Judge Winston Kidd wrote in his ruling, "This matter has lingered on for far too long. Common sense dictates that this matter come to an end at this time."

Hood refused to represent Pickering's office in the matter and said Pickering has wasted $340,000 of taxpayer money.

"Legal fees in the MCI case, and in every case that utilizes outside counsel, are paid in strict accordance with state law and the guidelines and procedures of the Office of Attorney General," Hood said in a statement.

"This lawsuit, which originated with former state Auditor Phil Bryant, has already cost taxpayers more than $340,000 in legal fees paid to outside attorneys hired by the Auditor's Office to pursue its misguided position.

"I hope our current state Auditor will decide not to pursue this isssue further and waste even more of our citizen's hard-earned money."

Langston was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty in Jan. 2008 to a charge that he attempted to bribe Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby Delaughter with consideration for a job as a federal judge.

The attempt, Langston says, happened when he represented disgraced plaintiffs attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs in a dispute over attorneys fees earned in asbestos settlements. Balducci also represented Scruggs in the case.

DeLaughter eventually did not agree with a special master's recommendation that Scruggs pay his former partner $15 million and ruled Scruggs only owed $1.5 million. DeLaughter pleaded guilty to misleading investigators and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Timothy Balducci, who worked at Langston's firm during the case, pleaded guilty in Sept. 2007 to a separate alleged judicial bribery scheme. Scruggs was in a dispute over more than $26 million in fees from Hurricane Katrina cases and was sentenced to five years in prison for admitting to attempting to bribe Lafayettte Circuit Judge Henry Lackey.

Balducci cooperated with the FBI, gathering evidence against Scruggs and two other members of his firm. Balducci received a two-year prison sentence.

Langston, a heavy campaign contributor of Hood's, was also given a state contract to pursue a case against pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly but was fired after pleading guilty.

Pickering said the attorneys in the WorldCom case were paid about $2,000 per hour, based on the information he could gather. Pickering said Hood did not comply with a request for a complete listing of hours and work performed.

Pickering said he always anticipated the matter would ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court.

"There is clear precedent on the need to get legislative appropriation for compensation to special assistants to the attorney general, which was not done in the Langston matter," Pickering said.

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

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