Wednesday, October 24, 2007
The race for attorney general is boiling down to two relevant choices: Do voters want a state lawyer who tries to distance himself from lawyers, or a lawyer who embraces them.
Jim Hood, attorney general since 2003, beat out Republican Scott Newton in a year when Republicans swept other statewide offices, including the treasurer's office, the office of lieutenant governor and the governor's office. Hood succeeded Mike Moore, who retired that year after settling with national tobacco companies for almost $4.1 billion. The popular Moore approved of Hood and was still viewed as a savior of the state's budget, thanks to the annual influx of tobacco money.
Republican political operative Alben Hopkins has been a recurring figure in the GOP, serving on the gubernatorial campaigns of Govs. Kirk Fordice and Barbour, and on the committees to elect both Bush presidents.
His service was not without reward. Fordice selected Hopkins to serve a fluff position as chief judge of the Court of Military Appeals for the Mississippi Military Department in 1996—which Hopkins admits has not met since his appointment.
Hood is pressing his accomplishments, such as the opening of the state Cyber Crime Fusion Center, the Domestic Violence Unit, the millions of dollars his office won for the state in 2006 and his work convicting former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen for the manslaughter of three civil rights workers in 1964.
Hopkins is taking his campaign cues from the state Republican Party, spending the brunt of his resources painting Hood as corrupt. Hopkins attacks Hood for taking campaign donations from many of the same law firms he selects to carry state plaintiff suits.
"Hood has repeatedly refused to explain the circumstances surrounding the fact that public records reveal that—as attorney general —(he) has repeatedly given state contracts to lawyers and law firms, who have given him over $423,000 in campaign contributions," Hopkins campaign states.
Hood's 2005 settlement with WorldCom/MCI continues to be the strongest talking point with Hopkins and the state Republican Party. Hood settled a lawsuit with the organization over back taxes owed to the state as a result of its 2002 $11 billion accounting fraud and subsequent bankruptcy.
Hood hired Joey Langston as a special assistant attorney general. Hood also contracted attorneys to help represent the state in a lawsuit against five insurance companies who allegedly shortchanged policyholders after Hurricane Katrina. In both instances, the hired attorneys contributed to his campaign.
Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Jim Herring criticized the deals, pushing for sunshine laws that would "protect the taxpayers of this state, so the taxpayers won't have a $14 million dollar fee of taxpayers dollars given to somebody without the general public knowing that the contract existed and without any time sheet presented."
Herring is inaccurate in his depiction, Hood says.
"We got $100 million, and we got about $8 million worth of buildings. Then once the negotiations were done, I said, 'Now, as a penalty, you're going to have to pay our attorney's fees.' As a penalty, (WorldCom) had to negotiate separately with the attorneys. Herring and Hopkins say greedy lawyers grabbed $14 million out of state coffers when (in reality) Worldcom/MCI opted to pay that amount directly to the attorneys."
The money, Hood explained, never had the option of going to the state coffers in the first place.
In addition to receiving $108 million in cash and property, Hood's office also convinced MCI to donate $2.5 million to the state Children's Justice Center Project, a proposed one-stop medical and legal center for abused children. The center, which would have been housed in the Jackson Medical Mall, would offer abused children access to medical facilities, forensic tests, and state and local legal officers. Hood said Worldcom/MCI agreed to the donation as a public relations gesture.
The combined settlement of more than $110 million in cash, property and donations is staggering, considering the state tax commission was only asking MCI for $3.5 million.
Nevertheless, the state Republican machine declared war on the settlement, even as GOP legislators quickly shuffled the brunt of the settlement money to the state's general fund to cover shortfalls in the 2006 budget.
During the last legislative session, Republican Sen. Charlie Ross authored a "sunshine" bill requiring the attorney general to gather three proposals from different law firms and submit them to a contract review board any time a case is expected to require outside counsel and the attorneys' fees are expected to surpass $1 million. That bill died later in the Democratically controlled House Judiciary Committee after passing through the Senate.
"If we had passed something like that earlier, would the state have recovered the $100 million in WorldCom (MCI) money instead of the $3.5 million the tax commission asked for?" asked Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto. We don't want to break a system that's obviously working so well."
Moak referenced the value of the WorldCom/MCI money, pointing out that it helped Barbour's reputation considerably.
Barbour held a press conference during the last legislative session, signing off on legislation that would cover the $55 million loss the state suffered in the Mississippi Beef Plant fiasco. The governor chided the Democrat-led House for approving the plant (even though he had written a letter in support of it), but gave little press to the Democrat in the attorney general's office who'd secured the pay-off.
"Basically what they did in that press conference was endorse a portion of the MCI check," Moak said.
Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Dowdy was quick to criticize what he saw as Republican hypocrisy regarding sunshine laws. Dowdy pointed to Barbour's shadowy trust fund, referring to a recent Bloomberg article explaining that Barbour makes $300,000 a year from his Washington lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers—information kept from the public until the leak exposed it.
"The Republican Party attack on … Hood is a hypocritical political stunt," Dowdy said. "Rather than engaging in phony political attacks, the Mississippi Republican Party should be for sunshine on Gov. Barbour's blind trust so the people of Mississippi can know all of the facts behind (the former tobacco lobbyist's) finances when he vetoed the tobacco tax and directed hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to clients of his firm."
In the interest of avoiding conflicts of interest, Barbour agreed to place his financial assets into a blind trust fund that the governor said receives static monthly payments from his old firm, regardless of the firm's monthly income. The trust blinds state officials better than Barbour, who has ready contact with the firm still sporting his name.
Since the Bloomberg story, Barbour has made no effort to reveal the details of his blind trust. He is fully backing the Ethics Commission's investigation of who leaked his information to the Bloomberg reporter, however.
Though neither the ethics commissioner or the state auditor, so far, has made any effort to clear the air regarding the possible motivation behind some of Barbour's vetos, State Auditor Phil Bryant has taken up the assault on the profitable WorldCom/MCI settlement. Bryant, who is running for lieutenant governor on a ticket to virtually marry the Senate to the governor's office under Barbour, threatened to sue Langston in Rankin County Circuit Court to force him to "return" the $14 million in fees Worldcom/MCI paid his firm.
The War On Kids
Bryant had earlier demanded the Mississippi Children's Justice Center Board—a 501(c)(3) charity established to fund the Medical Mall's Children's Justice Center Project—return the $4.2 million donated by WorldCom/MCI, arguing that the money belonged to the state's general fund. The board complied, turning the money over, and all but dissolving the charity and the state of the art facility it would have eventually produced.
The auditor might have been in for a fight, but the board had no heart for battle. The largely Republican board had already given the boot to Chairman Mike Moore and had no motivation to cross Barbour.
Langston insists the money his office steered toward the justice center was never intended to be settlement money for the state.
"Rather than pay us over $1 million in fees, we allowed (Worldcom/)MCI to direct that money to the justice center, so part of the money that went to that was actually attorney's fees that would have gone to us. That allocation did not benefit us, yet the Republicans took it away from them just to play politics," Langston said, adding that he was astounded at the lack of uproar.
"The people and the media in Mississippi are too willing to accept the Republicans' definition of their own actions. When is somebody going to actually ask them 'Why did you take money from the Children's Justice Center, that was donated to them by a third party?'"
Bryant faced little protest. Emboldened, the auditor then went after Langston, making the same demand regarding the $14 million in attorney's fees.
Langston filed a complaint for declaratory relief in the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, to confirm the court's 2005 order directing WorldCom/MCI to pay Langston's attorneys' fees—emphasizing that it was the court's decision to allow the transaction, not Mississippi's.
Langston explained that Worldcom/MCI directly paid his attorney's fees, not the state, and at no cost whatsoever to Mississippi taxpayers. He also said Bryant's complaint—if anything other than political—is more than two years overdue.
Bryant has since summoned to appear in the New York court. "Personally, I don't think (the judge) cares if Phil Bryant wants to be lieutenant governor," Langston said.
The issue between Langston and Bryant is unresolved, but the attack on the attorney general's office's manner of bringing home gobs of liquid cash continues. Hopkins holds no bars in beating the issue of the Langston connection.
"Did Hood give the WorldCom (MCI) contract—that paid $14 million—to Joey Langston in return for the $156,839 Langston previously gave to help elect Hood attorney general?" Hopkins' Web site asks. "Is the additional $102,875 Hood's taken from Langston, since giving him the WorldCom (MCI) deal, part of a quid pro quo?"
The questions allege serious corruption, and Hood agreed the allegations might have some basis if the attorney general's job was to regulate lawyers.
"But it's not," Hood said. "We regulate businesses. If the AG's office were taking big donations from major corporations, I'd expect anyone should be suspicious. Look, nobody says anything if WorldCom (MCI) or any one of these corporations I have to go up against gives Republicans a bunch of money."
Hood said the attorney general's office should rightfully turn to the powers of corporate regulation—lawyers—for campaign cash.
"If you disarm the lawyers, if you say, well, lawyers can't give money to the AG's campaign, then the corporations will buy every AG's office in the nation, and regulation for these corporations stops.
Hood warned that the corporations are certainly knocking at the attorney general's door. The Mississippi Republican Party, which takes in huge corporate donations every year, routinely outspends Hood's own campaign. In the last election, Hood's Republican opponent outspent him by about $1 million. Hopkins may likely outspend Hood this year, even though Hood is the incumbent in the race, and Hopkins has never prosecuted a felony case in his life.
Gaps In The Argument
Hopkins' campaign makes some allegations that appear logical, though voters would plainly see their holes if they knew the system. For instance, Hopkins proposes in a campaign statement that Hood could fund plaintiff cases more cheaply out of his own office, instead of using outside counsel like Langston.
Information requests to the attorney general's office shows the department has a total of nine civil attorneys on staff, and likely doesn't have the resources to chase million-dollar suits requiring hundreds of man-hours.
"The Legislature doesn't appropriate one dime to file a suit," Hood said. "That beef plant case … would have cost us $50,000 out of my AG's budget."
Hood added that conservatives should be pleased at the inroads the attorney general's office has forged in privatizing state government. "Republicans are always talking about privatizing everything. Well, this is what I'm doing, and it's not costing the state one single dime, and it's efficient. These lawyers are not going to go after a bad case. The problem here is it takes me five minutes to explain all that, but it takes Hopkins a 30-second ad to say I gave my friends $14 million," Hood said.
"In the court of law, I'd be stomping these arguments," Hood said, "but the court of politics is different. If you've got the money to say it enough, whatever it is, then it becomes true, and voters begin to believe that stuff."
Hopkins did not return calls to the Jackson Free Press.