House passes bill that would cap fees awarded to some lawyers hired by the attorney general at $20M

02/24/2017 08:30 PM

FRANKFORT — Legislation that would cap lawyers’ pay in contingency fee contracts awarded by the Office of the Attorney General at $20 million cleared the House on a 62-32 party-line vote Friday.

Rep. Jason Nemes, a Louisville Republican who is sponsoring House Bill 281, said the measure is designed to send more money to affected Kentuckians in high-profile civil cases, but Democrats repeatedly decried the bill as a “payback” for corporate interests that are often defendants in such lawsuits, evidenced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s support.

HB 281 would also require contingency fee contracts awarded by the attorney general’s office to be posted online, something Attorney General Andy Beshear, who testified against the bill last week, says his office already does.

The bill originally called for a $10 million cap on attorney awards, barred the attorney general from contracting with lawyers already involved in similar litigation against the same defendants and required public disclosure of expense documents at any point during the suit, but Nemes said he ironed out concerns on those matters with Beshear’s office and Rep. Darryl Owens, a Louisville Democrat and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Nemes stressed more than once that he did not look to antagonize Beshear, has been embroiled in a political feud with Gov. Matt Bevin since both took office, in filing HB 281.

“It is important to note that this attorney general already does most of these things,” the freshman lawmaker said when going over requirements to post contracts online in HB 281. “This is not in any way an effort to attack Attorney General Beshear and the way he reports these things on the Internet. It is to make sure we codify the transparency that Attorney General Beshear largely already does for the future.”

Some Democrats countered that capping contingency fees would limit the state’s ability to recruit attorneys to take on multinational companies.

Owens, who ultimately voted against the compromise he helped broker, said the cap in Florida, where former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum first started the initiative, is more than twice the amount in HB 281 at $50 million. McCollum had testified in favor of HB 281 on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before the House Judiciary Committee Feb. 15.

Attorneys, he said, will probably look for similar work in the 27 other states that don’t have such restrictions if HB 281 passes.

The $20 million limit “restricts our ability to get the best and the brightest to represent Kentuckians in these kinds of cases,” Owens said.

“These caps are not dollars that Kentucky had and they spent,” he said. “It’s not taxpayer dollars. This is money that they generate, so if you do the cap, you may not get as much money as you would have gotten if you had hired an attorney who didn’t have a cap.”

Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, was more forceful in his criticism of the bill, accusing House Republicans of rewarding corporate interests that helped fund their political aspirations.

Wayne called the lower chamber “the best House of Representatives that money can buy.”

“Ladies and gentleman, it is scandalous how much was spent in the elections last year to buy this House of Representatives, and now it’s payback time,” he said. “Now it’s time for the corporations, with their laundry list of wishes, to come before us and have this body rubber-stamp everything they want so they now have total control over the people of the commonwealth.”

That drew a rebuke from House Speaker Jeff Hoover, who launched into a floor speech that continually mentioned events surrounding the downfall of Tim Longmeyer, a former Personnel Cabinet secretary and top deputy in Beshear’s office who was sentenced to 70 months imprisonment in a federal bribery case.

The Jamestown Republican also touched on other blows the attorney general has absorbed in his first term, such as a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by a former female staffer and the sudden exit of an expert open records and open meetings attorney who said she felt that some decisions had political motivations.

“You want to talk about scandalous, mister speaker?” Hoover said after detailing Longmeyer’s fate. “I’ve yet to hear one member of the minority party address that situation and how they regret it and how it was a shame and embarrassment for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

“Not one member of the minority party, mister speaker, has addressed that. That is what is scandalous.”

HB 281 now heads to the Senate for its consideration.


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