- Associated Press - Thursday, April 17, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and a family of Raleigh lawyers have settled a defamation lawsuit filed nearly 14 years ago about a television commercial Cooper aired in his first campaign for the job.

Cooper and longtime aide Julia White signed the agreement released Thursday as did Dan Boyce, his relatives and a now-disbanded law firm. The settlement includes an apology by Cooper, White and his campaign. They and their insurance companies also are responsible for $75,000 in costs, as well as mediation fees, the settlement said.

The resolution, reached late Wednesday, came as the first of two scheduled civil trials in the matter was set to begin April 28. It also settles what could have been a tricky legal and public relations matter for Cooper, who is building up a bid for governor in 2016.

Boyce, a Republican, ran against Cooper for attorney general in 2000. Cooper’s committee ran an ad about the size of legal fees in a portion of a broad 1990s class-action tax case against the state involving Boyce attorneys. The lawsuit was filed by Boyce, who lost to Cooper by 5 percentage points in the election; his father, Gene; his sister; and her husband.

In court records, the Boyce said the ad was false but Cooper ran it anyway. Cooper’s side defended the commercial and said the other side couldn’t prove its contents were false.

“This is the result we’ve been trying to achieve for over a decade, and we are pleased,” Cooper spokesman Morgan Jackson said.

As part of the settlement, Cooper and White signed a statement that the Boyces and Laura and Philip Isley “are all excellent and ethical lawyers and honorable people. To the extent the political TV ad in the 2000 election for Attorney General implied anything else, we were wrong and we apologize.”

The statement, among other things, also affirmed the “personal integrity and professional ethical standards” of Gene Boyce and others at was then called the Boyce & Isley firm.

Gene Boyce, who once served as an attorney on the Senate Watergate Committee, said in a release it was “unfortunate that it took 14 years for Roy Cooper and his team of attorneys to admit their TV ad is wrong and to submit a public apology into the court records.”

“I hope our result sends a strong message to future politicians that they are accountable in North Carolina and the United States for false TV ads,” the elder Boyce added.

The commercial said that Dan Boyce’s law firm “sued the state, charging $28,000 an hour in lawyer fees to the taxpayers. The judge said ‘it shocks the conscience.’”

The ad referred to a lawsuit filed by North Carolina residents who paid a tax on stocks and other securities that was ultimately found unconstitutional. These people, who paid the tax under protest, received a $146 million settlement. The proposed fees were rejected by the judge at the time and later reduced.

Dan Boyce has said his law firm wasn’t involved in the case at the time of the settlement - Gene Boyce and another law firm handled that portion of the case. Dan Boyce’s firm, which later included his father, helped handle another portion of the lawsuit. A judge last week scheduled two trials - Dan and Gene Boyce as plaintiffs in one trial and the Isleys for the other.

But lawyers on Cooper’s side said the ad’s contents were based in part on statements by Dan Boyce taking credit for many cases. “The ad was based on Boyce’s campaign materials and court documents but this settlement addressed any misunderstanding that occurred,” Jackson said Thursday.

The litigation reached the state Court of Appeals on three occasions. Attorneys asked the North Carolina’s highest court and the U.S. Supreme Court to get involved but they declined to do so. Media attorneys had hoped trials would clarify the limitations of libel law addressed in the case by the Court of Appeals in 2002.

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