Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says bills remain alive during the 2018 session designed to limit his ability to file lawsuits, primarily against large corporations that he says have harmed the state and its citizens.
Certain elements of the business community, backed by some in the Republican Party, have long opposed the practice of Hood and past Mississippi attorney generals filing lawsuits against large corporations, often with the aid of private attorneys who fund the lawsuits and receive sizable rewards if they prevail, but nothing if they lose.
Hood has said he uses outside counsel in a limited number of lawsuits, because he has a small legal staff and his agency does not have the funds to pursue what often is complex and expensive litigation to recoup funds owed to the state by giant corporations.
One recent example is a successful lawsuit filed against pharmaceutical companies accused of over-inflating the cost of prescription drugs to the state for Medicaid recipients.
Hood has been successful in reaching settlements or winning verdicts against a number of the drug makers, including a $25 million settlement this year with Watson Pharmaceutical. Such verdicts and settlements are deposited in the state general fund.
House Judiciary A Chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon, who has been one of Hood’s most consistent critics and has been the leader in the legislative effort to curtail his ability to file lawsuits, said, “one person (Hood) is affecting public policy in Mississippi to the point that it is affecting economic development.”
One bill alive this session involves what often is routine legislation to reauthorize the elected three-member Public Service Committee. The bill, which has passed the Senate, and is pending in the House, would require for the PSC to sign off on lawsuits filed by the attorney general against public utilities.
Hood said he fears the bill could impact his long-running lawsuit against Entergy, which provides electricity to much of Mississippi. The lawsuit alleges that Entergy overcharged its customers for electricity by using power from its generators instead of acquiring electricity from the cheapest source as it is mandated by laws and regulations.
At the very least, Hood said the bill, if enacted into law, could delay the start of the trial, which is slated to begin Nov. 8 after nine years of litigation.
Hood also said the bill, if law, could provide Entergy with other options to attempt to block a judicial remedy.
“This isn’t kids’ games and should not be dismissed as just partisan politics,” said Hood, a Democrat. “This is a billion dollars of the people’s money. The legislators driving these bills are attempting to give taxpayer money to corporations.
“We don’t want to believe it, but you can see corporations writing our laws. This should shock the conscience of Republicans and Democrats alike. With a billion dollars on the line, no reasonable prosecutor would dismiss the possibility of bribes, kickbacks and campaign contributions being offered.”
Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, the author of the legislation, said the intent of the bill is to clarify the existing law that the PSC has the primary responsibility of regulating utilities.
House Public Utilities Chairman Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, agrees. He said under the bill, if the PSC sees a problem it could ask the attorney general to intervene.
“I don’t see it as a real big change to current law,” Beckett said. “I see it as more of a clarification.”
Another bill that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate would strip away the authority of the attorney general to file lawsuits under the state’s Consumer Protection Law. The intent of the bill is to limit the authority of the AG to file lawsuits against companies that are regulated by other entities.
Baker, the author of the legislation, said the AG still could file suit, but that it might be more difficult.
Hood has filed multiple lawsuits under the Consumer Protection Law, one of the most high profile is against opioid manufacturers, whom he alleges misrepresented the benefits of their product.
The bill weakening the Consumer Protection Law is pending in the Senate. As of late Friday, it had not been referred to committee. Tuesday is the deadline for the bill to pass out of committee in the Senate.
“These bills directly impact every Mississippian, and if they are signed into law, it would be devastating to everyone, including the people who are pushing this legislation. I was elected, just as other attorneys general before and after me, to protect you,” said Hood who is waging a social media campaign to try to get people to lobby their legislators to kill the bills.
Since 2004, according to information compiled by Hood’s office, he has recouped more than $3.3 billion in lawsuit settlement funds for the state.
The best known of the lawsuits filed by the state against large corporations occurred in the 1990s when former Attorney General Mike Moore won billions for the state against tobacco companies in a suit designed to collect costs to the state for treating smoking-related illnesses.
— Bobby Harrison / Daily Journal
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