A media consortium led by Raycom Media television stations WLBT of Jackson, WLOX of Biloxi and WDAM of Hattiesburg and Jackson New Media’s YallPolitics.com collectively earned a victory in an 18 month legal battle to unseal court records. The group filed to intervene on April 23, 2009, in the 2007 federal court case of State Farm Insurance vs. Attorney General Jim Hood (2:07CV188BP, Southern District of Mississippi). Attorney General Jim Hood’s office filed two separate objections to the media group accessing this information.
Judge Bramlette’s order now unseals several key pieces of information that was hidden from the public including the settlement agreement. These media outlets had requested that US District Court Judge David Bramlette make public a settlement agreement entered into between State Farm Insurance and the Mississippi Attorney General’s office that was executed hours after General Hood was questioned under oath as a defendant in that case.
After executing that agreement, material public disagreements about the meaning and even the existence of the agreement between Jim Hood and State Farm came to light.
Days after the settlement in Judge Bramlette’s court, on February 18, 2008, Attorney General Hood wrote an op-ed column in the Clarion Ledger and stated, “allegations lodged against me by this insurer (State Farm) were shown to be false when a federal judge recently threw out a lawsuit it had filed against my office.” Jan Schaffer, Press Secretary for the Attorney General Hood, stated in an email to the press on February 19, 2008, “There is no ‘settlement’. The only reason it is referred to as such is because the details of the Attorney General’s criminal investigation needed to be protected. The case was dismissed because the allegations were false.” In an email response that was accidentally leaked to the press, State Farm Attorney Sheila Birnbaum stated “This is so over the top. Can we ask that he (General Hood) be held in contempt of court for misrepresenting a settlement agreement and order of the court?”
As background, State Farm filed this action against AG Jim Hood alleging breach of contract. State Farm and Hood’s office had agreed on January 23, 2007 in a written agreement that Hood would end his investigation and grand jury subpoenas of State Farm in exchange for certain remedies involving reopening of Katrina claims. Additionally, State Farm paid Jim Hood’s office $5,000,000 in investigations costs. In August 2007, State Farm received additional grand jury subpoenas, they filed suit against Hood for the breach of agreement.
The settlement was dictated by lawyers from both sides into a transcribed session in front of Judge Bramlette with Jim Hood and State Farm executives present in the session. The parties agreed:
1. That Jim Hood’s office would withdraw the grand jury subpoenas
2. That each party would bear their own costs
3. That neither side could use this settlement agreement in other courts
One additional caveat to the settlement was that the parties agreed that Jim Hood’s office could not investigate State Farm regarding Katrina issues any further without coming to Judge Bramlette himself (who retained jurisdiction over the case) and asking his permission.
WLBT’s News Director Dennis Smith stated, “We are pleased with Judge Bramlette’s ruling. This is a victory for media having access to public records in Mississippi, and hopefully public officials will look to this ruling to discourage future attempts to conceal information from voters and taxpayers.”
With regards to the conduct of Attorney General Jim Hood, YallPolitics.com Editor Alan Lange commented, “The evidence of the settlement agreement shows that Jim Hood just plain lied to the voters and taxpayers of Mississippi about the existence of this agreement and its meaning. He knew the truth and publicly said otherwise. For seemingly no better reason than to avoid a bad press day, Jim Hood and his press secretary actively and deliberately leveraged the fact that the agreement was sealed to intentionally mischaracterize it, hoping that it would never see the light of day. When media groups filed to access it, his office wasted taxpayer dollars and fought us every step of the way. The settlement agreement released today completely verified our suspicions and entirely validated our position.”
More previously sealed information including testimony from Courtney Scholemer of the Mississippi Attorney General’s office is scheduled to be released by the Court next week.
Alan Lange is Editor of YallPolitics and co-author of Kings of Tort, the definitive book on the Dickie Scruggs judicial bribery scandals, which covered this saga and other issues. The book was published by Pediment Publishing in 2009.