Avoiding the appearance of impropriety

The SE Texas Record Feb. 13, 2010, 8:13am

A person in a position of public trust is expected to avoid not only impropriety, but even the appearance of it.

How does it look, though, when state attorneys general accept campaign contributions from trial lawyers who subsequently are awarded potentially lucrative contingency-fee contracts?

It doesn't look good. And citizens are left to wonder if a quid pro quo has been exchanged.

There are numerous potential pitfalls for government entities adopting contingency arrangements: avoidance of competitive bidding or legislative authorization, for example, donations to political campaigns from trial attorneys seeking such arrangements, etc.

Contingency arrangements also may violate the defendant's right of due process, which presumes that government officials and their appointed private delegates will not be partial – much less have a financial stake in litigation. Other concerns arise about separation of powers and government's ability to ensure justice and maintain public trust.

Contingency arrangements can skew the judgment of government officials and their attorneys, diminish demands of fiscal responsibility, and trigger the pursuit of damages solely for the money's sake.

Attorneys general of several states in recent years have made a practice of hiring campaign donors as outside counsel in public pension fund shareholder litigation. The Wall Street Journal exposed the scheming states in a report earlier this month. Texas, we're happy to say, has not been one of them.

George Scott Christian, president of the Texas Civil Justice League, affirms that Attorney General Greg Abbott's office "has operated with transparency." In 1991, the legislature set guidelines for the hiring of outside counsel. "Now there is an approval process with the budget board," Christian explains. "The AG has to work with legislative leadership."

Greg Abbott and the Legislature deserve credit for maintaining the public trust and avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. They are serving us well and we should be proud of their efforts.

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