- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Republican lawmakers want to limit how much money outside attorneys hired by the state can be paid, a move Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear says would force Kentucky to send rookies to battle the pros.

The attorney general’s office sometimes hires outside attorneys to help with big cases, most often against large corporations that have vast resources. 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.

House Bill 281 would cap how much those outside attorneys could earn depending on how much money the state recovered, but no fee would exceed $10 million.

“This enables Attorney General Beshear to attract appropriate attorneys to handle the case, while also ensuring in these cases that the lion share of the money comes back to commonwealth,” said Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes, the bill’s primary sponsor.

But Beshear says the bill would limit his ability to win those cases by not being able to attract the best attorneys.

“Taking on these companies is truly a David vs. Goliath situation,” Beshear said.

Since 2014, Kentucky has settled four lawsuits that include “contingency fee contracts” with outside attorneys. Those cases settled for a total of $79.5 million. Of that money, $13.3 million went to outside law firms hired to handle the cases. Most of the money the state made went to bolster drug addiction treatment programs.

Right now, Kentucky has five pending cases that include outside attorneys. Of those, only one - a lawsuit against Fresenius Medical Care Holdings Inc., the country’s largest kidney dialysis provider - has a percentage of more than 20 percent. In one of those pending cases, Beshear said the other side recently turned over 38 million documents. Beshear said his office would never be able to sort through that information without outside help.

The bill cleared the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday with a mostly party line vote. Several Republicans voted for the bill, but said they had some reservations and could vote “no” if the bill comes up for a vote before the full House of Representatives.

Some Democrats, including state Rep. Darryl Owens, wondered why the bill doesn’t place similar limits on other statewide constitutional officers, including the governor. Beshear has taken Republican Gov. Matt Bevin to court three times to challenge some of his decisions, acts that have angered Republicans and prompted harsh rebukes from Bevin on conservative talk radio stations.

But Nemes said his bill was not meant to punish Beshear.

“Attorney General Beshear, to my knowledge, is making the contracts relatively open. This is not in any way to go after him,” Nemes said.

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