AG revives legal fees debate

Private attorneys hired by Gov. Haley Barbour charged the state $127,112 for a six-month legal battle over Medicaid cuts.

Attorney General Jim Hood’s release of the bill renews debate between Barbour’s office and Hood about whether the cost could have been avoided.

“I tried to quietly work with them before that Medicaid suit occurred,” Hood said Monday of attempts to give Barbour’s office legal advice.
Plaintiffs in the Medicaid case last September sought an injunction to prevent about 50,000 poverty-level, aged and disabled people from losing Medicaid benefits under a cost-saving plan proposed by Barbour and approved by lawmakers.

Hood, a Democrat, said a termination letter mailed to the beneficiaries failed to adequately disclose their rights to a hearing.

“Those regs were very complicated, and I said, ‘We didn’t know. Let’s go back and do it right,’ ” Hood said.

Barbour, a Republican, said at the time that he had to hire outside lawyers because Hood eventually sought to intervene with the plaintiffs.

“Jim Hood’s own office prepared the Medicaid notice that he then refused to defend in court,” Barbour communications director Buddy Bynum said Monday. “Jim Hood’s failure to do his job caused agencies of state government to turn to outside counsel for competent legal advice.”

Hood said he had an attorney who worked in the Medicaid Division, “but that letter was prepared deep in the bowels of Medicaid. They never ran it past the AG’s office.”

The case was settled when lawmakers approved funding in March to keep the beneficiaries on Medicaid through 2005. Medicare coverage begins in 2006.

Mary Troupe, an advocate for the disabled plaintiffs in the lawsuit, criticized the legal fees.

“We all need to be really careful when we talk about how we spend money,” she said. “We need to look in our own back yard. We didn’t want to take them to court. This could have been settled.”

Barbour’s contract was with Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada of Jackson and included 33 lawyers who charged $125 to $315 an hour. Mark Garriga billed the most hours – 105.3 for $24,219. Hood complained that the average hourly rate was $231.

He said he usually approves $150 hourly rates or $175 as a maximum when a case requires a particular legal expertise.

The feud is not the first time Mississippi’s attorney general and governor have turned to outside lawyers. In 1996, Attorney General Mike Moore hired outside lawyers to sue tobacco companies. Gov. Kirk Fordice hired lawyers to block the suit.

Barbour has hired private lawyers to challenge a $20 million annual payment from the tobacco settlement that goes to the Partnership for a Health Mississippi for anti-tobacco programs. Hood is defending the challenge.

Joe Nosef, Barbour’s chief staff attorney, said he was surprised Hood would complain about outside legal fees when Hood used an outside attorney earlier this year to settle a $100 million tax dispute with the former WorldCom.

“It’s amazing to me that somebody like Jim Hood, that just paid a $15 million kickback to his friend Joey Langston, would complain about a legal fee to the state because he wasn’t doing his job,” Nosef said.

Langston is a Booneville attorney who contributed $25,000 to Hood’s 2004 campaign. He negotiated a $14 million fee separate from the state’s $100 million payment.

Hood replied that Langston “brought us something. We wouldn’t have had a nickel. Those lawyers in the Medicaid lawsuit lost.”

Clarion Ledger
8/16/5