Guest commentary: All Texas AG candidates should sign transparency pledge

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By John Smiley (republished from the Galveston County Daily News)

With Texas voters heading to the polls again in May for primary runoff elections, transparency and open accountability should be top of mind for voters and a top priority for our elected officials.

That’s especially true in the election of the state’s top lawyer and law enforcer, our state attorney general.

In 1999, Texas passed a law relating to how and when the state government could use outside counsel on litigation. The reason for the change stemmed from then-Attorney General Dan Morales’ decision to contract with five contingency fee lawyers to pursue claims against tobacco companies.

While it was discovered that these five personal injury lawyers did very little work on behalf of Texas taxpayers and the state’s lawsuit, they received $3.3 billion in fees when the cases were resolved as part of a larger national settlement.

In passing that law more than two decades ago, a bipartisan group of state leaders made transparency and accountability a top priority.

The law requires the state attempt to handle all litigation through in-house counsel. It outlines how an agency should handle contracting for outside counsel when it’s necessary to use lawyers outside of those employed by the state, requiring a contracting agency to first seek an hourly fee arrangement.

The Legislative Budget Board must approve contingency fee contracts of more than $100,000.

While these are significant steps toward the accountability and transparency Texas voters and taxpayers deserve, more could be done.

At Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, we’re heartened to see the American Tort Reform Association again calling for attorneys general and candidates for those state offices to embrace a general transparency code.

Attorneys general should, of course, have the discretion and independence to enforce state law. Still, they must do so free from the influence of parties that may have a private interest in the outcome of any litigation their office may take on.

It’s also imperative that our state responsibly handle litigation, ensuring the government entity keeps more of the money recovered by state lawyers and any contracted outside counsel.

The association’s transparency code reflects best practices and model policies from across state and federal government that govern state attorneys’ general and their office’s work. The effort is a nationwide movement and can be found online at AGSunshine.org.

As Texas’ chief law enforcement officer, our Texas attorney general and the candidates vying for that office can and should play a role in creating a fairer civil justice system.

To date, Attorney General run-off candidate George P. Bush and Eva Guzman, who finished third in the Republican primary, have returned and signed the transparency pledge.

Transparency and accountability are issues that should transcend partisanship. We urge all of the remaining candidates for attorney general to consider this pledge and a personal and professional commitment to transparency and accountability while in office.

Jon Smiley is a board member of Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse and president of iON Constructors LLC.