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Point of View: States' lawyers should serve public interest

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Tiger Joyce
Tiger Joyce

In 2017, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter decided to sue opioid makers, and instead of hiring one of the many plaintiffs’ firms with experience litigating against opioid manufacturers, he hired three politically well-connected and generous law firms. Now there are questions about what one of those firms did to earn its fee.

The state settled with Purdue for $270 million, but other cases go to trial soon and based on contracts Hunter signed, three plaintiffs’ firms expect to receive payouts between 14 and 25 percent off the top of any settlement or judgment. Such a windfall raises questions as to the firms’ qualifications, value to taxpayers, and whether a transparent and competitive bidding process could have lowered fees.

Hiring outside counsel precedes Hunter’s tenure, but urgent reforms are needed in Oklahoma because his office claims that standard Oklahoma procurement rules requiring transparency and competitive bidding don’t apply to retaining outside counsel in purportedly billion-dollar litigation. They should.

In addition, the qualifications of the firms Hunter selected call into question the objectivity and impartiality of his procurement process, undermining public confidence in his office.

The firms Hunter selected have no experience bringing opioid litigation. One of the firms, Glenn Coffee and Associates, doesn’t even tout litigation as a service offered. Oklahoma media are now investigating how the firm is entitled to the $5.6 million in fees it will earn in the Purdue settlement.

But we do know the firm received more than $20,000 in legal fees from Hunter’s AG campaign and it employs a former colleague of Hunter. Also, Coffee and his wife contributed more than $16,200 to Hunter’s campaigns. Did Hunter hire a qualified firm, or did he simply hire his ally?

Austin, Texas-based Nix Patterson LLP also is representing Oklahoma in the opioid lawsuit. The firm’s website highlights its private jet as a unique asset it brings to litigation. Flying commercial, they say, just takes too long.

All told, employees and families of three firms Hunter selected contributed at least $72,500 to his political campaigns.

Since Oklahoma decided to file suit against opioid manufacturers, its citizens should be confident that as much as possible of any settlement or verdict goes toward treatment and law enforcement — not as millions in fees for one law firm that appears to have no expertise in the field or to cover jet fuel for another high-flying and politically connected law firm.

Oklahoma should follow the lead of 23 other states and adopt reforms promoting transparency, accountability and value for taxpayers when Attorney General Hunter hires an outside law firm. These reforms would restore confidence in his office.

Joyce is president of the American Tort Reform Association.

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