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State Would Look for Cheaper Lawyers Under Bill

February 27, 2002
By: Nicholas Rummell
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - In response to the $110 million payout to lawyers following the recent tobacco settlement, Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder is sponsoring a bill that would require the state to look for discounted private lawyers before hiring counsel.

The bill provides for open, competitive bidding in state contracts for legal counsel that exceed $100,000 per year. Any additional expenditures would need to be specifically appropriated by legislators through the bill.

Missouri lawyers will be paid more than $111.2 million from the 1998 tobacco lawsuit that the State of Missouri filed along with 45 other states.

However, several private attorneys involved in the suit are now suing each other over the payout of the fees.

Kinder, R-Cape Giradeau, had previously called the fees "the biggest rip-off in state history" but stated that the current squabbles among lawyers are "deliciously ironic."

"The tobacco lawyer scandal tarnished the reputation of every lawyer involved, including the district judge," said Kinder. "It is a terrible precedent that should never be repeated."

In response to Kinder's comments, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon's spokesman Scott Holste said that Kinder "is never short on hyperbole."

"We've got concerns that litigation matters would be handled by the lowest bidder [if this bill were passed]," said Holste.

Holste also said he is concerned about the bill, especially because attorneys for the tobacco companies testified in favor of it.

Kinder accused Nixon of being part of a conspiracy, and stated in a press release that the bill would protect the interests of the taxpayers from overpaid lawyers.

"All the citizens of Missouri are the client," said Kinder, "and it is the client's interests we are trying to vindicate here."

A representative from the American Legislative Exchange Council said that Kinder's bill prevents private deals between politicians and lawyers. Furthermore, said Rochelle Tedesco, without open, competitive bidding, attorney generals may be motivated by profits to sue.

The $50 million payment from the 1998 tobacco settlement to the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), said Tedesco, provides a "strong incentive" to seek other industry lawsuits.

Said Tedesco of the NAAG: "The strategy of the attorneys general to pick an industry and go after it through litigation...has resulted in the de facto creation of a fourth branch of government."

But competitive bidding for lawyers may buck the system, said Cole County Circuit Judge Byron Kinder.

Although government contracts for buildings and supplies may be competitively bid for under state purchasing law, an 1980 attorney general opinion states legal services cannot.

"It is just not done," said Judge Kinder.

Kansas, Texas and North Dakota have enacted similar legislation to Kinder's bill, which has been filed at least three times before, and several other states are currently considering it.

The Missouri Bar Association has no position on the bill yet, but expects to make a statement by early March.

The bill is still now in the Senate Pensions and General Laws Committee.