Bill would remove AG lawyers from state agency duties

mmnewsom@sunherald.comJanuary 26, 2013 

Lawyers from the Mississippi Attorney General's Office would no longer be assigned to state agencies, if one state lawmaker gets his wish.

Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, an attorney, has drafted a bill that would end more than 60 attorneys from the AG's office having assigned duties with state agencies under the AG's supervision. Baker's bill hadn't been assigned to a committee as of late last week and its text hadn't been released by Friday afternoon.

"I think state agencies should be hiring their own lawyers and I think the Attorney General's Office should be the Attorney General's Office," Baker said. "I think we should look at why staff attorneys at the Department of Marine Resources (for example) have to be an employee of the attorney general."

Baker said the attorneys would be transferred to the state agencies they've been representing and would answer to the heads of those agencies.

"The goal is not to terminate anybody," Baker said. "The goal is to realign the relative duties, obligations and allegiances."

The attorney general has more than 60 attorneys who work for state agencies. 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.

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, the AG's main client, particularly with requests under the Mississippi Public Records Act.

Baker said he believes public-records requests could be handled in house by the administrations of the various agencies in the future.

"We need to have some separation there," he said. "… The attorney general represents the state of Mississippi and that is all well and good, but the day-to-day operation of an agency has very little to do with the Attorney General's Office, in my opinion."

Some advantages

The AG's office takes the position that its attorneys simply advise agencies to follow the law on public-records requests and other matters.

Attorney General Jim Hood's office declined comment on Baker's proposal.

However, Deputy Attorney General Michael Lanford told the Sun Herald recently 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.

Hood's office criticized

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 in an unrelated case to federal charges of conspiring to bribe a judge.

Hood has contended outside counsel contracts have been public record and above board, but last year, a Republican-backed law dubbed the "sunshine" act 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.

Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said the provision in Baker's bill has come up in previous legislative debates over the "sunshine" act.

Though he hadn't seen the bill, as it had not been filed yet, Moak said he worries about the costs that would be placed on state agencies to hire their own counsel instead of using the state attorneys.

He also wonders if the bill wouldn't just be a way for well-connected lawyers to get work from state government.

"Now it's just 'let them hire their buddies to represent their individual agencies,'" Moak said. "I think it's not frugal and I think it's a waste of taxpayer dollars and all it is is lawyer job creation. I'm a lawyer, I can say that.

"If that is the language, it would be bad public policy."

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