DESPITE THEIR HAZARDS, cigarettes have been good for Christine Gregoire's political health.
The state attorney general's star has risen steadily since she took a leadership role in the $206 billion US tobacco settlement. She has garnered national praise and earned mention as Janet Reno's possible successor in a Gore administration. She helped enrich the treasuries of almost every US state, including $4 billion in tobacco funds for Washington. She teamed up to help private law firms reap as much as $20 billion in legal fees. And she continues to direct an influential antismoking campaign that the industry agreed to sponsor.
Now a smoky bonus. Though she may finish the year as AG-designate in the other Washington, Gregoire's Washington state 2000 reelection campaign coffers are filling up with thousands of dollars from those grateful out-of-state attorneys she helped earn millions. The private law firm Gregoire hired to represent Washington in the tobacco litigation has already primed her campaign with $23,000 from two dozen attorneys and family members. The firm, Ness Motley Loadholt Richardson & Poole, of South Carolina, earned at least $20 million handling the Washington case. That's in addition to another $1 billion Ness Motley was awarded as a major player in the multistate settlements, working closely with Gregoire to broker the historic deal. As of last week, the Charleston firm's contributions to Gregoire represented more than 40 percent of the AG's budding $53,000 state reelection fund.
With more than 400 attorneys and a budget near $70 million, Gregoire's office wields power and influence while handing out millions of dollars worth of legal work to contracting private law firms. The potential for conflict with state lawyers hiring private lawyers at taxpayer expense is built-in, as Gregoire is well aware. She was fined $2,500 in 1996 after admitting to several campaign-finance irregularities regarding her former employer and state contractor, the Seattle law firm of Foster Pepper & Shefelman.
Gregoire campaign spokesman Fred Olsen says of this year's Ness Motley contribution, "People may think, 'Gee, it must be a payoff,' rather than what it is, a reflection that someone has a high regard for an elected official. Christine took the money and knew it might be an issue, but it's foolish to think she hired someone to do work only if they would contribute to her campaign."
Adds Joe Rice, Ness Motley's managing partner and the deal-making litigator who partnered with Gregoire to win the US tobacco settlement: "Any suggestion that there's some kind of payoff, a quid pro quo with Christine, is pure bull."
Considered a shoo-in for her third term this year, Gregoire was instrumental in negotiating the 1998 tobacco installment-plan settlement that requires the industry to pay $206 billion to 46 states over 25 years. Four other states (Mississippi, Florida, Texas, and Minnesota) separately settled for another $40 billion.
Washington has so far received $320 million of the $4 billion it is slated to get over 25 years, if the tobacco companies do not seek bankruptcy protection. Gregoire recently approved hiring a Los Angeles law firm to watchdog the industry, which is rumored to be exploring bankruptcy as a way to stave off the settlement plan. The truly big bucks—an extra $1 billion to each state—kick in at the ninth year of the deal.
With millions already pouring into the litigators' accounts (a federal judge estimated that attorneys earned $6,700 an hour in the Louisiana settlement alone), some are sharing with favored politicos. Ness Motley is one of three US tobacco-lawsuit firms who recently gave a total $1.1 million in soft money to the Demos. They hope to help defeat GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush, an opponent of the tobacco settlement costs and legal fees.
"Bush has been critical of the process, yes," says Joe Rice of Ness Motley, widely respected for its class action public health litigation, including breast implant, asbestos, and lead poisoning cases. "But we're just exercising what we consider our Constitutional right to elect the people who will best represent the working class. These are the people who benefit from the kind of lawsuits we bring."
But why contribute to a state campaign 3,000 miles away? Rice and senior partner Ron Motley each gave Gregoire $1,100. Altogether, 26 Ness Motley attorneys and family members gave $23,200, in increments from $250 to the maximum $2,200, state public disclosure records show.
"I had the opportunity, as did four or five of my partners, to work with this woman, who clearly showed she cared about what she was doing," says Rice. "Her dedication was exhausting. Listen, I'd love to see her re-elected, and if you all don't want her in Washington, please send her to South Carolina."
Gregoire spokesperson Olsen says it's not a question of who has given to the campaign, but who hasn't. There's no record of donations from class-action specialist Steve Berman, for example, whose Seattle firm was also a leader in the tobacco litigation.
"They haven't given a dime," says Olsen.
Adds Joe Rice: "I only wish we had given her more."
On the other hand, it is only April.