by O.H. Skinner
Public officials have a horrible habit of diverting money away from victims. Consider how state Attorneys General used the state opioid settlement with McKinsey, the consulting powerhouse, to send $15 million to their own National Association of Attorneys General. Or think of how these same Attorneys General hand out lucrative public contracts to prominent trial lawyers under the guise of consumer protection, contracts that are often missing basic protections (including basic ethics protections) and help propel millions in highly partisan political giving.
There is a name for this practice of attorneys general funneling public money toward left-wing politics through trial lawyer contracts—the Shady Trial Lawyer Pipeline. A recent report shines a light on the Shady Trial Lawyer Pipeline, looking at federal political giving by eight prominent law firms, referred to as the Shady Eight. These firms, directly and through their employees, generated at least $15 million in combined donations to committees and candidates in the Federal Election Commission tracking system from 2017-2020. This dwarfed the federal donations generated by massive American corporations like Blackrock, Nike, or Twitter, and 99% of the money went to Democratic campaigns and allied committees.
The Shady Trial Lawyer Pipeline leaves everyday consumers and taxpayers with a horrible deal. But Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, in addition to handing out contracts to members of the Shady Eight, has managed to take things to the next level in the Flint water crisis settlement, helping give away over $150 million of victims’ money at once.
Everyone remembers the water crisis that resulted when the City of Flint’s drinking water source was switched from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River in 2014. In 2020, the State, with Attorney General Nessel at the fore, announced a $600 million settlement of civil claims, which later grew to over $625 million with the addition of the City of Flint and other parties. The settlement is likely the largest civil settlement in Michigan history. And much was made, from Attorney General Nessel and others, about how the settlement focused on the children of Flint and how the youngest Flint water crisis victims would get 80% of the historic settlement.
All these bold promises about victims and children came up flat as we learned that as much as $180 million of the money from the Flint settlement will go to trial lawyers instead of victims. One of the firms that will most benefit from this massive payday is Cohen Milstein, a member of the Shady Eight that was profiled in the recent Shady Trial Lawyer Pipeline report.
What is so particularly galling about this diversion of over $150 million away from victims (and children) is how Attorney General Nessel paved the way for this to happen. After agreeing to send $600 million of taxpayer money out the door in the settlement, Nessel voluntarily gave up her chance to speak to how much of that taxpayer money should go to victims as opposed to trial lawyers, agreeing to a preemptive ban on her office taking a position as to the fees issue.
It is bad enough when Attorneys General feed taxpayer money into the Shady Trial Lawyer Pipeline through big money contracts with trial lawyers, something Nessel herself does. It is something entirely different to see a public official tie their own hands, abandon victims, and help clear the way for over $150 million in taxpayer money to land in the pockets of trial lawyers instead of victims. There is a bill in the Michigan House of Representatives that is designed to prevent a repeat of the maneuver that Attorney General Nessel pulled in the Flint water settlement. But that won’t get any of the taxpayer money back from the trial lawyers and into the pockets of the children of Flint.
Good governance and honest stewardship call for better from our public officials, and from Attorney General Nessel in particular. Nessel might like the politics and the political giving of the law firms that are getting a payday from the Flint settlement. She might like how the trial lawyers at Cohen Milstein give 99% of their federal donations to Democratic candidates and allied political committees. But she should care more about fighting for victims. She should care more about sending money to the children of Flint than helping grease the skids for politically aligned trial lawyers to grab a monster payday.
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O.H. Skinner is the Executive Director of Alliance for Consumers and former Solicitor General of Arizona