CL – Miss. needs to reform AG’s process for hiring outside counsel

Once again, the drumbeat of political criticism is beginning against Attorney General Jim Hood over the outside counsel issue.

Once again, Hood has complied fully with state law regarding campaign contributions, the reporting of those contributions and with applicable state and federal laws regarding his procurement of legal representation for the state.

During his 2007 re-election bids, reports surfaced that Hood took large campaign contributions from attorneys to whom Hood had awarded lucrative outside counsel contracts representing the state. The allegations were true and the campaign contributions were legal. And after some charges and counter-charges during the campaigns, the public forgot about it or simply accepted it as business- as-usual in politics.

Public records show that Hood accepted $75,000 in 2007 from a Texas attorney poised to earn a huge paycheck if the state is successful in its case against drug companies, according to a review of campaign finance records.

The litigation has since settled with Mississippi getting $18.5 million from the drug company and the lawyers getting a portion of $3.7 million in legal fees.

For his part, Hood, a Democrat, has battled attempts to change the system of awarding outside legal contracts, changes Republican critics say would bring more accountability to the process. Hood contends that such contracts actually represent a savings to the taxpayers. But it’s difficult for watchdog groups to ignore the fact that such contracts have a way of ending up in the hands of large campaign contributors to Hood as they did some of his predecessors.

The appearance of impropriety should matter. It should matter to the attorney general – and it should matter to a governor, other executive branch officials and to legislators whose contributors are bidding for contracts as well.

Mississippi needs to enact politically neutral statutes governing the hiring and compensation of outside legal counsel, but it needs to do so in concert with comprehensive campaign finance reforms. Outside counsel reform is only one piece of a complex puzzle.

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2/17/10