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Los Angeles-The plaintiffs’ lawyers who drafted a $377 million settlement with Sempra Energy earlier this month are seeking more than $160 million in attorney fees, according to lawyers involved in the case. Six law firms, all but one in California, agreed to a Jan. 4 settlement that ended a five-year case filed on behalf of the utility’s California and Nevada consumers in which they alleged that Sempra drove up its consumer prices during the 2000 and 2001 energy crisis. Sempra, which did not admit any wrongdoing, agreed to pay $377 million in cash, plus discounts and other savings that bring the total amount of the settlement to nearly $1.9 billion. Natural Gas Anti-Trust Cases I, II, III & IV J.C.C.P. (Judicial Council Coordination Proceedings), nos. 4221, 4224, 4226 and 4228 (San Diego Co., Calif., Super. Ct.). Now the lawyers are cashing in on their share of the settlement. Plaintiffs’ firms filed court papers last week saying they want $161 million in fees paid over two years, plus $9 million in costs they incurred during the five-year case. Each firm would receive an equal share of the $161 million, or $26.8 million each, according to Walter Lack, partner at Los Angeles’ Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack, one of the six plaintiffs’ firms. “That was longer and more expensive than anything I’ve ever seen,” Lack said. Court papers filed last week refer to discovery that included “the production of millions of pages of documents, over a thousand interrogatories and admissions, and the deposition of dozens of witnesses.” Robert Cooper, a partner at Los Angeles’ Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who headed a 14-person defense team for Sempra in the case, said his firm would not contest the attorney fees, but noted “that’s a lot of money.” Cooper, who teamed with Gibson Dunn Los Angeles partners Richard Levy, Mark Weber and Kay Kochenderfer on the case, declined to say how much the firm obtained in attorney fees. But according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Sempra expects to incur after-tax costs of $350 million related to the litigation, including attorney fees. “It was a big case, it was a lot of work,” he said. Plaintiffs’ lawyers had been seeking $23 billion in damages from San Diego-based Sempra, which owns Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. They alleged that executives at Southern California Gas, San Diego Gas & Electric and El Paso Corp. concocted a plan to fix energy prices while in a Phoenix hotel room in 1996. In 2003, El Paso agreed to pay $1.6 billion to settle the case. The plaintiffs’ team, which includes Denver-based Astrella & Rice; Baker, Burton & Lundy in Hermosa Beach, Calif.; and Los Angeles lawyer Brian McMahon, was led by well-known Los Angeles trial attorneys Thomas Girardi and Pierce O’Donnell. Girardi, a partner at Los Angeles’ Girardi & Keese, crafted the negotiations of the settlement, while O’Donnell, a partner at Los Angeles’ O’Donnell Shaeffer Mortimer, oversaw the four-month trial. O’Donnell’s troubles O’Donnell may face more hurdles in his next trial-this time, as the defendant. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has charged O’Donnell with 26 misdemeanor counts of laundering $25,500 in political contributions during Los Angeles’ 2001 mayoral race. By reimbursing employees and associates, O’Donnell allegedly made the political contributions to support then-Mayor James Hahn while representing the city of Los Angeles as a plaintiff in the case against Sempra. If convicted, O’Donnell faces a maximum of 13 years in prison. In an unusual move, O’Donnell’s case was delayed as the Sempra trial began on Oct. 24. “It’s rare we would have a defendant who is a practicing attorney,” said Jane Robison, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office. “We often go after attorneys for corruption, but they’re disbarred.” Neither O’Donnell nor his attorney, George O’Connell, returned phone calls. But O’Donnell’s spokesman, Craig Parsons, confirmed that the Sempra case took up “the bulk of his time” in recent months, and that “everything that moved, his case moved, as well.” Parsons said O’Donnell has no other cases that would impede his ability to stand trial. O’Donnell, who has pleaded not guilty, is scheduled to appear in Los Angeles Superior Court for a pretrial hearing on Jan. 18, with an anticipated trial next month.

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