Hood seeks $10 million, says payments to state at stake
Pending approval of the Legislature, the attorney general's office could receive an extra $2 million this fiscal year to pursue damages from the BP oil spill.
Without the money, Attorney General Jim Hood said he'll hire private attorneys on a contingency fee who'll put up the money to hire experts, a practice Republican lawmakers are seeking to end.
So far, "not one dime has been appropriated by the Legislature to fund the BP litigation," Hood said recently. "Until such time as the necessary funds are appropriated to fully cover the costs of this litigation, we will continue on our current course with the goal to recover all the money that is owed to the taxpayers of Mississippi."
Hood requested $10 million to hire outside attorneys and experts who can quantify damages from the April 2010 rig explosion and spill.
"The need for economic damage assessment has become urgent," Hood wrote in a letter dated Feb. 21 to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. The letter outlines the state's possible next steps in pursuing damages from BP and asked for Reeves' input.
Without additional funds, Hood wrote he would use a payment method in which a private lawyer takes a percentage of a potential settlement after successful litigation.
Republicans critical of Hood's use of the practice argue that private attorneys walk away with too large a chunk of the money. They've proposed legislation this session that would remove the attorney general's power to hire private lawyers on a contingency fee.
Hood, a Democrat, has described Senate Bill 2084, dubbed the "Sunshine" Attorney Act, as an attack on his power. The bill passed the Senate 32-17 and is pending in the House Judiciary A Committee.
Alluding to this conflict, Hood wrote in his letter, "This case is too important for us to allow political or philosophical concerns to impede the taxpayer from recovering every dime of loss that BP and its partners have caused and will cause the state of Mississippi."
Reeves, a Republican, wrote back that he would advocate for additional appropriations so Hood could hire lawyers and experts on an hourly basis.
"It is in the taxpayers' best interest to ... ensure the bulk of any potential settlement is directed to state accounts, not lining the pockets of private attorneys," Reeves responded in a letter dated Feb. 28.
In an amendment to another bill, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eugene Clarke has included a $2 million request for Hood with those for other state agencies. The Senate passed the amended House Bill 1511 51-0 and transmitted it back to the House for concurrence or agreement.
At a recent Capitol news conference, Reeves said he isn't against hiring lawyers on contingency fees as a general rule.
"There are some instances in which continency-fee contracts make sense for taxpayers," he said. "Usually, it's when the outcome of the lawsuit is unknown.
"As it relates to BP," he said, "the outcome is known: They are going to spend a lot of money in the Gulf states, and I just think it's foolish for the state to be paying percentages of what could be hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars to lawyers for what amounts to a couple of months of work."
Businesses and individuals affected by the spill agreed March 2 to settle with BP. The company estimates it will shell out $7.8 billion.
Next, the federal, state and local government claims will be handled. Hood said if the state does not hire experts to compile a report of the total damages, it won't get as much money as it deserves.
Hood said Alabama has joined the federal class-action suit and will be paying lawyers a 4 percent continency fee.
Hood said in the letter that Mississippi, Florida and Texas have not joined the federal suit. He made that decision "in order to avoid a federal judge and the federal government from dictating the terms of the case to the state of Mississippi."
He said it could take years to assess the damage, but the federal government would pressure Mississippi into reaching a settlement within six months. Louisiana tried to stay out, as well, he said.
"The state of Louisiana attempted to fund its effort, but the initial appropriations of $10 million is said to be depleted by experts and lawyers working on an hourly basis," Hood wrote. "This left Louisiana no choice but to be dragged into the federal case against its will."
To date, Louisiana has spent $13.3 million on attorneys, experts, and other litigation expenses, according to a spokesperson for that state's attorney general's office. Reeves says $2 million will be sufficient for Mississippi.
"At $200 an hour, that's 1,000 hours that could be dedicated just in the next three months," he said, pointing out that the fiscal year ends June 30. "One thousand hours is 50 hours a week if one lawyer is working for 20 weeks non-stop, or two lawyers working part time, so there is a lot of money there.
"My view is," he continued, "that's the best bang for the buck of taxpayers."
Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, said he trusts both the attorney general and leaders in the Legislature to vet the details of the request, but he stressed the significance of returning to Coast residents what they've lost.
"The spill affected everything from tourism to canceled conferences to a decrease in land value to the national perception," Zuber said. "You still have a problem with people in the other parts of the country believing that the seafood that comes out of the Gulf of Mexico is unsafe. That's going to take a lot of marketing to overcome, and for that, we need money."
Zuber said, too, the state should be compensated for permanent damage to the environment and efforts to heal the region's wildlife.
"It's extremely important to the state to get an equitable settlement," he said.
By Jessica Bakeman
Source: The Jackson Clarion Ledger