Tuesday, August 9, 2011

John Baer: Lawyers have firm interest in liquor law

IF THE LEGISLATURE and Gov. Corbett succeed in privatizing wine and liquor sales, one large Pittsburgh law firm is well-positioned to cash in, thanks to its unusual help in writing the would-be law.

Two lawyers with the megafirm Eckert, Seamans, Chernin & Mellot helped draft House Bill 11 to sell off the State Stores. The bill's prime sponsor is House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Pittsburgh.

The law firm's political-action committee has made campaign contributions to Turzai, Corbett and many other politicians and candidates.

The Eckert lawyers, based in Harrisburg, are Alan Kohler and Mark Stewart. Kohler is a registered lobbyist representing casinos and gambling interests. Stewart is a former lobbyist.

While it's not unusual for outside counsel to be hired to help write complex laws (despite that the Legislature is awash in well-paid staff attorneys), the Eckert lawyers worked for free.

Stewart did not return a call for comment. Kohler referred me to Turzai's lawyer.

When I ask Turzai's general counsel, Jim Mann, about the arrangement, he says: "I think it's unusual but not unheard of."

Several attorneys in and out of government and the Legislature, as well as lobbyists with whom I discussed this, could not name another instance like it.

Lobbyists routinely offer legislative language on behalf of clients. This is a law firm offering to draft a major policy change from which it can benefit.

Two things strike me.

First, Eckert is positioned to be the firm to represent those seeking booze licenses. (Kohler's page on Eckert's website already touts his involvement in "the development and drafting" of the bill.)

"That might be," Mann says, "but when we brought them in it was for their expertise because Rep. Turzai wants legislation that will actually work."

So, I'm sure, does Eckert.

Second, Turzai's bill doesn't impact beer, except by improving sellers' futures by allowing them to get licenses to also sell liquor and wine.

Eckert represented the state's Malt Beverage Distributors Association last year in an effort to prevent beer sales in large stores with restaurants.

The state Supreme Court in December ruled unanimously in favor of such sales.

Mann insists that there's no conflict. He says that the decision not to impact beer was made before Eckert lawyers got involved; he adds that both have expertise in privatization issues.

The firm certainly does. It just represented a privatization coalition of grocery stores and retail outlets seeking the selloff of Virginia's state liquor stores.

That effort died in the Virginia Legislature in February.

Eckert is a national firm with offices throughout the East and more than 300 lawyers. It's politically active and connected.

Its senior counsel and former chairman is LeRoy S. Zimmerman, who also heads the multibillion-dollar Hershey Trust. He's long involved in GOP politics (he personally gave Turzai $500 last year) and is a former state attorney general.

The Eckert firm, since 2007, gave more than $546,000 to state candidates and political committees of both parties - including $45,000 to Corbett and $4,300 to Turzai.

One could argue, in the obvious absence of competent attorneys working for the Legislature, that it's better to get free outside help than to spend tax dollars for it.

But the cross-allegiances and political ties wrapped around this instance serve as yet another example of public policy being shaped with more than the public interest in mind.

By Philadelphia Inquirer

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

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