Press release from Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse
Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) groups in Texas applauded a proposed Transparency Code issued by the American Tort Reform Association to enhance public disclosure of contractual arrangements between state attorneys general and private contingency fee lawyers.
"While it is sometimes necessary for attorneys general to hire outside contingency fee lawyers to work on behalf of the state, without absolute public disclosure, the potential for abuse is far too great; Texas can attest to that," said Kirsten Voinis, spokesperson for CALA of Central Texas.
The ATRA Transparency Code calls for disclosure of contracts, oversight in the contracting process, detailed reporting of work performed, and accountability in how large settlements awarded to the state are handled. The code was released Sept. 17 by the tort reform association and may be found on www.agwatch.org.
"The bottom line is private contingency fee lawyers working for the states are working at taxpayer expense," said Bill Summers, president of the Rio Grande Valley CALA based in Weslaco. "And that means taxpayers have the right to know the extent of the relationship between the attorneys general and the outside lawyers they hire. It also means taxpayers should have the full and complete details of the contractual arrangements between the state and private contingency fee lawyers."
Summers noted the potential conflicts that can arise when AGs award lucrative contracts to their political supporters without competitive bidding and with little or no oversight from the public or state legislatures.
"Without oversight and strict rules," said Diane Davis, executive director of East Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, "too many gray areas exist that could leave taxpayers in the dark about an attorney general's dealings with private lawyers. That is exactly what happened with former Attorney General Dan Morales."
"Texas illustrated the potential for abuse and then led by example in passing new laws to keep the problem from happening again," said Connie Scott, executive director of Bay Area Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse in Corpus Christi. "That's why we urge state leaders to continue to embrace and promote transparency at all levels of government and continue the good work that has instilled so much public confidence in our current Attorney General, Greg Abbott. Our experience here in Texas, and our constructive response to it, can be a lesson for AGs in other states. I hope AGs across the nation debate, consider and adopt the Transparency Code."
Starting in February 1998, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) groups in Texas began to question the legal fees and expenses of outside lawyers hired by then-Attorney General Morales to handle Texas' lawsuit against tobacco companies. The lawyers pocketed $3.3 billion in fees, plus $40 million in "miscellaneous out-of-pocket expenses;" the expenses were never fully documented. The CALAs also were the first public interest organizations to criticize Morales' contract with his friend, lawyer Marc Murr, who was also hired by Morales for the tobacco case. Morales later served prison time for falsifying documents in the case in an attempt to give Murr hefty fees from the tobacco settlement.
The CALAs mounted a petition drive calling for greater public scrutiny in the letting of public contracts and in 1999 supported legislation that required greater oversight of certain contingency fee contracts entered into by the Texas attorney general. The legislation, which was passed and became law that year, also limits how much any outside lawyer may be paid by the state and requires they keep records of time worked and expenses incurred.