As Attorney General Troy King moves forward with litigation against BP, Gov. Bob Riley is seeking to limit King’s negotiating power in the landmark case.
Riley has issued an executive order that restricts King’s authority to hire private lawyers to help represent the state, a move that rekindled a long-running feud between the governor and the state’s top lawyer.
King suggested that Riley did not grasp the stakes in the multimillion-dollar case and said that the order would weaken the state in its battle with the oil giant.
“He’d rather take pot shots at me than do what’s best for Alabama,” King said.
Riley’s order stipulates that any legal contract that exceeds $195 an hour or that contains a contingency fee agreement must be approved by his office. The order was signed Thursday, hours before King sued BP and its partner companies accusing them of negligence and reckless behavior in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Riley said Friday that he believed King’s legal action was premature and could unnecessarily complicate the state’s negotiations with BP over the compensation owed to Alabama as a result of the spill.
Riley said he was powerless to stop King from suing, but that he was taking steps to bar private lawyers from taking an exhorbitant share of the money owed to Alabama.
Riley said King offered private law firms a contingency fee of 14 percent of the state’s total claim if they would join the case. Under those terms, the governor said, the legal fees could reach $20 million, based on estimates that the state has suffered about $140 million in tax losses and other damages from the spill.
The fees are unwarranted, Riley said, because the state has been working for weeks to prepare its claim – without the help of outside counsel. He said the executive order “protects taxpayers from getting ripped off by lawyers who expect to make millions of dollars, even when they play no actual role in getting Alabamians the payments they deserve.”
King, who filed the lawsuits Thursday in U.S. District Court in Montgomery, said that his office has signed no contracts with any outside counsel. But he said Riley was naive if he thought that cash-strapped Alabama could handle a case as massive and complex as the BP litigation without assistance.
“This is one of the biggest corporations in the world,” King said. “They know the budget constrictions we’ve got. They are absolutely rubbing their hands with glee at the idea we won’t bring in outside counsel.”
King said he was taking steps to protect Alabamians “whether the governor agrees with me or not.”
“Maybe the governor has bought into their advertising campaign, that they’re going to make everything right,” he said. “But in my experience with BP, time after time, they have broken their word and failed to do what they have promised.”
Both Riley and King are set to leave office in January. The two Republicans were once political allies — Riley appointed King to the office in 2004 — but have clashed over a range of issues, most notably the legality of electronic bingo machines.
Both of the men running to succeed Riley as governor — Republican Robert Bentley and Democrat Ron Sparks — have said they support King’s move to sue BP.
BP reacted to the lawsuits by saying it had agreed to pay all legitimate claims for economic loss, and that it had established a funding mechanism with an initial commitment of $20 billion. The company said it has paid $352 million in claims so far, including $83 million in Alabama.
“The voluntary claims process that BP has established may be the surest and quickest way to get all legitimate claims paid, and it’s the best way to ensure that the full amount goes to claimants, and not to pay attorney’s fees,” said BP spokeswoman Dawn Patience.
Riley said Friday he wanted to see the claims process work. He said he was more than willing to pursue BP in court if the company failed to honor its commitments, and that he was not opposed to bringing in additional legal firepower if needed.
“No one has ever said the attorney general can’t hire legal representation. No one has ever said that the state of Alabama doesn’t need the best representation,” Riley said. “What I will never allow to happen, though, is for (lawyers) to come in and take $20 million away from the people of Alabama when they have performed nothing, no work, to deserve it.”