The Mississippi Attorney General's Office describes its role as "most importantly" representing the people of the state, but says it also has dozens of attorneys who represent state agencies.
Those agencies often field requests from the public through the Mississippi Public Records Act, and the AG's office advises them about how to handle such questions. It's a system that can place the attorneys between what the AG's office describes as its top client, the public, and another client, the government.
The attorney general has more than 60 attorneys who work for state agencies, including two, Sandy Chesnut and Joseph Runnels, who handle legal duties for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, which is the focus of state and federal probes of its spending practices. Chesnut and Runnels are part of a large network of attorneys at the AG's office who represent the state departments of Transportation, Health, Corrections and others.
They provide general counsel on civil matters and advise the agencies about how to act in compliance with the law.
They represent state agency staff in administrative hearings and handle a wide range of personnel issues, including employee discipline cases. They also represent state agencies in court.
The Mississippi State Personnel Board reports Runnels makes $94,000 per year, and Chesnut makes $75,000. The two attorneys weren't made available for comment.
Deputy Attorney General Michael Lanford said there are advantages to having government attorneys represent departments of the government, as opposed to legal help from a private firm.
"I think the Legislature wants independent legal advice from the Attorney General's Office to be given to the agency," Lanford said. "That's what you get when you have AG lawyers, rather than staff attorneys or counsel that you've hired."
Agencies could also fire a lawyer from an outside legal firm if they're told something they don't want to hear, Lanford said. But that doesn't mean the AG's office doesn't use outside attorneys in some civil cases.
Though it has dozens of staff attorneys, Attorney General Jim Hood's office has been criticized over the years for hiring politically connected attorneys in private practice to represent the state in civil matters. Republicans have attacked Hood, a Democrat, for lucrative contracts his office gave to friends and lawyers who supported his campaigns.
Some $14 million in legal fees went to Hood's friend Joey Langston and another law firm for handling a tax-settlement case for the AG's office. Langston, one of Hood's biggest campaign contributors, later pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to bribe a judge in an unrelated case.
Hood has contended outside counsel contracts have been public record and above board, but last year, a Republican-backed law was passed requiring more detail to be released about the attorney general's outside contracts, and it places some restrictions on contingent-fee contracts for legal services, among other provisions.
Attorneys, Hood silent
When the Sun Herald requested interviews with Runnels and Chesnut about their roles with DMR, Hood's office referred calls to Lanford. Hood has been silent on the issues at the DMR, and his office turned down a Sun Herald request to speak to him.
"Attorney General Hood is not going to be able to call you," Jan Schaefer, public information officer for the AG's office, wrote in an email to the newspaper. "If your questions concern any potential investigations, which we would not be able to confirm nor deny anyway, then there would be nothing he (can) comment about."
DMR under scrutiny
The DMR is the focus of state and federal investigations into its spending practices, on which the Sun Herald has reported. Chesnut and Runnels have been present during the probes, but what they've talked about with the agency leadership during their time there is unknown. Discussions between an attorney and client are often confidential.
Whether any criminal charges will result from the probes is unknown. But as for whether the public should be concerned about the Attorney General's Office lawyers having represented an agency under scrutiny, Lanford said he doesn't think so.
He said it has been his experience since joining the agency in 1991 that when anything criminal has gone on at various agencies, often those officials never sought advice from the Attorney General's Office on the issues that got them in trouble.
"My experience has been that folks who engage in illegal behavior don't ask us first," he said.
The office doesn't provide any advice to officials or state agencies about criminal investigations they could be the focus of, he said.
He also said the Attorney General's Office wouldn't confirm or deny whether they were investigating the situation.
Conflicts of interest?
Describing its role, the Attorney General's Office website says the attorney general represents state agencies, among other duties, but it also says "most importantly, the office is charged with the representation of the people of the State of Mississippi." The role of working for state agencies can put the attorneys in an odd position when they make decisions about how the agencies should deal with residents, its main client, particularly with requests under the Mississippi Public Records Act.
Lanford said the office simply advises agencies to follow the law.
"(The agency) can call us and ask us 'What does the law say on this? Is it exempt? Is it confidential? Is it something I'll get in trouble for if I do release it? Do I have to release it?" Lanford said. "We'll tell them, if the facts support it, that's a public record. You need to give it up. If it's exempt, we will tell them it's exempt. You don't have to give it up."
A $3,000 request
Acting on advice of the attorneys, the DMR calculated a charge of $2,912 to the Sun Herald for collecting and copying documents related to one CIAP grant it gave the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies.
The DMR also estimated a charge of $1,393 for collecting and copying payroll sheets, payments, grants and contracts from an account that holds Katrina disaster-relief money.
State agencies are given wide latitude about what they can charge the public to fulfill records requests under current law -- something groups advocating open government have criticized for years. They've said high charges for records can be used to intimidate the public when officials don't want certain information released. The groups have asked for law changes to restrict what can be charged, as taxpayer money and resources were already used to compile the records.
University of Mississippi associate journalism professor Jeanni Atkins, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, said the costs of the requests to DMR appear too high for most to pay.
"Once again, a government agency has set a prohibitive cost on disclosure of public records, which an average citizen would not be able to pay," Atkins said. "Citizens have paid for those records to be compiled with tax dollars and must pay again to gain access to them. This is a problem the Legislature should confront and fix."
Charlie Mitchell, assistant dean of the Ole Miss journalism school and the center's president, said under the present setup, unnecessary obstacles shouldn't be created to keep people from having access to the information.
"To my knowledge, the state's practice of using lawyer pools is not something that, of itself, has created a freedom of information problem," he said. "If an attorney takes the plain language of the state open records law to say a record is public, as is apparently the case, it seems a duty of the attorney would be to support enforcement of the law.
"Zealous representation of a public client does not or should not include creating obstacles, such as unreasonable fees, to assist the client in shielding records the attorney believes are legally public records."
Lanford said he didn't know the specifics of the Sun Herald's requests, but he trusts the attorneys' judgment.
"I cannot comment on that particular request and the response because I don't know any of the facts behind it," he said. "I know both of my lawyers down there and I trust their judgment and their legal skills."