Political Notes 

Legal battles

Legal battles

The state Legislature’s new House Majority Leader, Democrat Jere Hargrove of Cookeville, is trying to loosen Republican Gov. Don Sundquist’s control over the state’s departmental legal staff.

The governor, in the name of efficiency, recently centralized all the state’s lawyers into one office. But Hargrove, along with state Sen. Bob Rochelle of Lebanon, has introduced legislation that calls for all attorneys who work for state departments, agencies, boards, and commissions to work solely under the supervision and direction of the attorney general, not the governor or departmental commissioners. Rochelle, perhaps the slyest and most articulate attorney in the upper house, is the actual author of the bill.

The House and Senate bills are a partisan, and perhaps practical, reaction to one of Sundquist’s most controversial administrative moves. Sundquist’s decision to consolidate all the state’s legal services even went against the will of his cabinet and against the advice of many attorneys.

Nevertheless, approximately 140 state attorneys are now working in the Tennessee Tower, tucked away in cubicles on two sprawling floors that are decorated with 1970s furniture and stained carpeting. Unless the Democrat-controlled Legislature demands otherwise, those less-than-glamorous offices will be their home for the next 18 months, or until renovations on other floors of the building are completed.

Sundquist has said he wants to pare the state’s legal staff down to about 100 lawyers. According to his plan, state attorneys would no longer serve as advisers to specific commissioners. Instead, they would function collectively, as workers in a department. Sundquist wants departmental legal work to be farmed out and perhaps even billed to state agencies, as if the state legal office were a private law firm billing its clients.

The governor’s critics argue that it is inefficient to distance the attorneys from the commissioners they advise on a day-to-day basis. Sundquist’s plan, they say, would jeopardize the operations of many departments. They also say that a consolidated legal department will make little use of the legal expertise that attorneys have developed by working in one department, where they regularly deal with specific types of policy issues.

If the Hargrove/Rochelle bill passes, the entire legal staff, along with its support staff, office equipment, computers, and records would be transferred and assigned to the office of the attorney general. Funding for the attorneys, the bill says, would also be transferred to the office of the attorney general, who could then assign the lawyers to specific state departments.

Rochelle says he and other legislators have asked the governor’s office to provide some justification for the consolidation move. Specifically, they say, they’ve requested an explanation from Deputy Gov. Hardy Mays, the governor’s former legal counsel, who has been the point person on the initiative. “We asked them for something, anything, that would explain this,” Rochelle says. “They said it would be on our desks a week and a half ago.” So far, according to Rochelle, the governor’s office has yet to provide any reason for making the changes.

What price pollution?

Lt. Gov. John Wilder’s son David is due for a windfall from a recent federal court ruling awarding $91 million to him and nine other plaintiffs in a suit against a company that operates a hazardous waste landfill in western central Alabama.

Among David Wilder’s fellow plaintiffs in the suit against Waste Management Industries is James Parsons, a son-in-law of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Parsons and Wilder were among the original investors in Resource Industries, which built the landfill and then sold it to a Waste Management subsidiary in the 1970s. As part of the deal, the investors were to get a portion of the revenues generated by the landfill. And they did. Between 1981 and 1993, the nine investors split $87 million among them.

In their successful lawsuit, which was filed in 1993, the investors charged that the payments made to them were not big enough. According to the judge’s ruling, Waste Management knowingly withheld payment. Waste Management still denies any wrongdoing and plans to appeal the decision.

The $91 million in damages includes $76 million in back royalties and interest and approximately $15 million in punitive damages.

Maybe now, with a little extra cash on hand, David can buy his dad a new bike.

Soldiering on

The U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration has appointed two attorneys to investigate a complaint filed by campaign reformer John Jay Hooker alleging the wrongful election of U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson.

The appointments stem from a complaint Hooker filed with the committee on Jan. 7. In that complaint Hooker charged that Thompson’s use of out-of-state contributions in his 1996 re-election campaign was illegal. Hooker charged that Thompson, a Republican, “violated the constitutional requirement of undivided loyalty between the representative and the represented.” Hooker was also a candidate in that race, running as an independent.

Last month, after Hooker’s complaint was received by the committee, its chairman, Virginia Sen. John Warner, a Republican, and Kentucky Sen. Wendell Ford, the committee’s ranking Democrat, brought in the two lawyers, one a Republican and the other a Democrat. The two senators also informed Thompson about the appointments.

The appointments should give Hooker a little encouragement in his crusade to straighten out the nasty business of campaign contributions. What’s more, there seems to be growing support for Hooker’s basic argument—that contributions from outside a district can diminish the impact of votes actually cast in the district.

Meanwhile, Hooker must deal with the fact that, as the law stands, Thompson hasn’t done anything wrong. Like any other politician who’s accepted out-of-district contributions, Thompson can point to the fact that there aren’t any laws prohibiting what he’s done.

Nevertheless, it’s satisfying to think that Hooker’s campaign may be going forward. The prospect of John Jay Hooker testifying before a Senate committee is enough to make you stay up late to catch the rerun on C-Span.

To tip or complain, call Liz Garrigan at 244-7989, ext. 406, or e-mail her at liz@mail.nashscene.com.

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