FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Over objections from Kentucky’s Democratic attorney general, GOP lawmakers took another step Thursday toward limiting how much outside attorneys can earn when hired by the state.
Supporters said the bill aims to maximize the amount from a settlement or judgment that benefits those hurt by a transgressor’s actions. Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office said the limits could hamper recruiting outside attorneys whose expertise can help win large awards for the state. In those cases, the contingency fees would be a good tradeoff, a top Beshear aide said.
“If we’re going big, 75 percent, 80 percent of big is way better than 100 percent of nothing,” said Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Brown. “And we need the ability to win these cases.”
The measure was advanced by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Its chairman, Sen. Whitney Westerfield, lost to Beshear in a close election in 2015. Westerfield, who plans to run again for attorney general next year, said he’s comfortable with the measure.
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The bill would set limits on contingency fees paid to outside lawyers. Those attorneys don’t get paid unless they win the lawsuit. They sign a contract with the Attorney General’s office that guarantees them a certain percentage from a settlement or judgment.
The proposal would apply to future contracts. If it becomes law, those fees would be capped at 20 percent of a settlement or judgment up to $10 million. Fee percentages would shrink for amounts above $10 million.
Those cases can yield potentially lucrative judgments, but often pit the state against corporations with vast resources and high-powered legal teams. So attorneys general sometimes hire outside lawyers to help with big cases, as Beshear has done in suing pharmaceutical distributors he accuses of inundating Kentucky with dangerously addictive opioid painkillers.
Beshear’s office says the bill would restrict its ability to recruit outside lawyers, pointing to its legal fight with opioid distributors. Nemes dismissed the criticism as “pure demagoguery,” noting Beshear’s office has received bids from outside lawyers that complied with the bill’s terms.
The bill, which already passed the House, would require the attorney general, the governor’s office or any another constitutional office to show that hiring outside counsel is needed.
But the focus has been on the attorney general’s office, and has been a politically charged issue as Beshear has feuded with Gov. Matt Bevin over the Republican’s use of executive authority.
Rep. Jason Nemes said his bill aims to make sure hiring outside counsel is necessary, that the contracts are transparent and injured Kentuckians are the biggest beneficiaries of awards.
“That’s what we’re trying to do with this bill, get as much money as possible to go to injured citizens,” the Louisville Republican said.
In complex cases, Brown said, some wrongdoers aren’t exposed until attorneys dig deep into a case. He said fee limits could deter outside lawyers from pursuing all potential defendants.
The Senate panel amended the bill to give the legislature or state Finance Cabinet oversight of contingency fee agreements. Beshear said in a statement that the amendment was “another power grab” and could “hamstring” his efforts to pursuit lawsuits against drug companies.
If the bill passes the Senate with the change, it would go back to the GOP-led House.
The bill also would require all records — including expenses — associated with the hiring of outside lawyers be made public.
The legislation is House Bill 198.