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LOS ANGELES � Two national tort reform groups have intervened in an Oklahoma case in an attempt to disqualify plaintiffs’ lawyers who were hired by the state’s attorney general on a contingency-fee basis. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) recently filed an amicus brief in an environmental case brought by Oklahoma Attorney General W.A. Drew Edmondson against about a dozen poultry processing plants. State of Oklahoma v. Tyson Foods Inc., No. 4:05-cv-00329 (N.D. Okla.). The Chamber and ATRA have been scrutinizing attorneys general for hiring outside counsel on a contingency-fee basis to bring big-ticket litigation against corporations. [NLJ, May 14]. “It’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem,” said Robin Conrad, executive vice president of the National Chamber Litigation Center, a public policy affiliate of the U.S. Chamber. Darren McKinney, an ATRA spokesman, said his organization signed onto the amicus brief in the Oklahoma case in part because of the state’s failure to pass tort reform legislation. The case involves Mt. Pleasant, S.C.-based Motley Rice, one of the plaintiffs’ firms that weathered a similar legal challenge last year in its case against several paint manufacturers on behalf of Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch. State of Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Assoc., No. 2004-63-M.P. The Rhode Island Supreme Court failed to rule on the issue. “The principal purpose of the brief is to persuade the Oklahoma court that it is inappropriate to delegate power to a private sector person in a matter of this importance,” said Victor Schwartz, a partner in the Washington office of Kansas City, Mo.-based Shook, Hardy & Bacon, which filed the amicus brief in the Oklahoma case on behalf of both tort reform groups. In their brief, the chamber and ATRA claim that “permitting the state to ‘contract out’ its enforcement power to private attorneys can lead to prosecution of government lawsuits on the basis of profitability, not public interest.” The state of Oklahoma brought suit in 2005 against the processing companies for allowing chicken manure into the Illinois River watershed, a million-acre region that serves as a source of drinking water. In a motion to dismiss the case, the poultry companies seek to disqualify the three firms that were retained to handle Edmondson’s case. They claim that the use of contingency-fee counsel violates the U.S. and Oklahoma constitutions. Among other things, the plaintiff’s lawyers in the Oklahoma case have made significant political donations to Edmondson, said Jay Jorgensen, a partner in the Washington office of Sidley Austin who represents Tyson Foods. That kind of situation, he said, “raises the appearance of impropriety. The public is entitled to question that arrangement.” Under contract, the three firms could receive 33.3% to 50% of the potential monetary damages awarded to the state. Calls to lawyers at two of the plaintiffs’ firms � M. David Riggs, a partner at Tulsa, Okla.-based Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison & Lewis, and J. Randall Miller, a partner at Tulsa-based Miller Keffer & Bullock � were not returned. Fred Baker, a partner at Motley Rice, referred calls to the attorney general’s office. In an e-mailed statement from the press office, Charlie Price, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, said, “The argument that the state’s contract with the outside attorneys is somehow invalid is nothing more than a misdirection.” “They want the court and the public to look at anything but what their pollution is doing to our water,” Price said.

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