Ethics Board bucks appeal in tobacco-fee case
The state Ethics Board Thursday tried to block a law professorâ€™s court challenge of the boardâ€™s decision in a case involving attorneys who represented the state against tobacco companies.
The attorneys made $575 million from the case -- legal fees Loyola University Law School Professor Dane Ciolino calls excessive and against state law.
Ciolino had asked the Louisiana Board of Ethics to declare the payments improper.
The board decided last month that the attorneys can keep the fees. Ciolino wants to appeal the decision.
On Thursday the board said Ciolino, who is acting as a private citizen, has no right to appeal. The board refused to ship documents related to the case to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.
The decision against cooperating with the professor came after the board met behind closed doors with representatives of the tobacco-case lawyers.
The 13 law firms recently paid the state $650,000 -- an amount equal to about one-tenth of 1 percent of their fees from the case -- as part of consent opinion ending the probe. The payment was not officially a fine.
The opinion concluded that an ethics violation occurred, but the board said it was unintentional and the law firms got no "illegal gain."
"Itâ€™s very, very, very odd" that the board would oppose his request to move the documents on the case, Ciolino said.
"It was really just a ministerial task to sign off so paperwork could be transferred to the 1st Circuit," Ciolino said.
"In all my years of practice, Iâ€™ve never heard of something like this happening."
Ciolino compared the Ethics Board to a trial court refusing to send a case record to an appeals court.
"Iâ€™m really kind of dumbfounded," he said.
Ciolino said he will now ask the appeal court to order the Ethics Board to transfer the documents.
"When something odd like this happens, it really increases my resolve," he said.
Board chairman Robert Roland gave no reason as he urged that the board reject Ciolinoâ€™s request. The board approved Rolandâ€™s motion without discussion.
No reason was cited in the boardâ€™s written denial either.
The nationâ€™s big tobacco companies are paying the legal fees in connection with a broader national settlement over smoking-related costs to state governments. Louisianaâ€™s government will get $4.6 billion over the settlement period.
The private attorneys were working for the state as assistant attorneys general during the lengthy negotiations leading to the settlement.
State law generally prohibits government employees from being reimbursed by a third party, such as the cigarette manufacturers in this case.
The law firms contend they were independent contractors for the state in the case and were not public employees.
Ciolino argued that he has the legal right to appeal the boardâ€™s findings. He contends the attorneys should hand over the legal fees to the state and re-negotiate more modest fees with the Legislature.
Ciolino said the board erred when it concluded, among other things, that:
Â· The lawyers representing Louisiana did not violate the state ethics law to their economic advantage, and
Â· Stopping the lawyers from receiving the tobacco legal fees would serve no legitimate government interest. The state cannot keep the legal fees, and denying the fees could put the entire tobacco settlement at risk, the board decided.
Ciolino filed his notice of appeal to the Ethics Board within the legally required 30 days after its opinion was issued last month.