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A Jacksonville man should be paid attorneys' fees for the yearslong legal battle he fought with the state over how legislators directed the use of a state fund, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in a split decision Thursday.

The dispute over potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of legal fees stems from the high court's ruling in late 2017 that lawmakers violated the state constitution in their use of General Improvement Fund monies to fund local projects. That ruling came in a Pulaski County Circuit Court lawsuit filed by Mike Wilson of Jacksonville, himself a former lawmaker as well as an attorney, over the program.

On Thursday, a 4-3 majority of the court ruled that Wilson was due some amount of attorneys' fees for his efforts. While the justices' decision amounted to what Wilson described as a "win," they left it up to a circuit judge in Pulaski County to determine what would be a "reasonable" amount to award him.

"I think it's a win for the public, actually," Wilson said Thursday, theorizing that it could embolden others with limited resources to challenge the state's actions in court. "Lawsuits are expensive undertakings."

The justices' 2017 ruling striking down General Improvement Fund spending came as a hat trick of sorts for Wilson, who had twice before won rulings that struck down the various ways in which lawmakers directed funds to local projects. In response to those earlier rulings, lawmakers developed a new process for distributing the funds as grants to local improvements districts. The districts then spent the money on projects recommended by lawmakers.

The revised method for spending general-improvement money, however, later became associated with corruption. A federal investigation uncovered that some lawmakers were given kickbacks when they directed some of their share of the funds to Ecclesia College, a private Christian college in Springdale. Four lawmakers were later convicted for grant-related crimes, while the federal investigation has spread to other lawmakers and to people in Missouri.

After the justices struck down the use of General Improvement Fund monies in late 2017, nearly $1 million in unspent funds was left sitting in accounts of the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. In March of 2018, Circuit Judge Chris Piazza in Pulaski County ordered that most of that money be returned to the state treasury, while a third -- $323,266 -- was awarded to Wilson for attorney fees.

The office of Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge appealed, arguing that the state was protected by sovereign immunity from having to pay attorney fees. Her office argued that there was no specific statutory authority to award Wilson the fees.

The court's majority turned to an earlier decision in which the justices awarded millions of dollars in attorney fees in the decade-long Lake View school-funding case. In that decision, the court ruled that because the state eventually had to collect more money as a result of the lawsuit by the Lake View School District, that the state should pay the fees of the school district's attorneys.

"Here, like in Lake View, sovereign immunity is not applicable, and a substantial benefit has been conferred to the benefit of the taxpayers," wrote Justice Karen Baker in the majority opinion.

Baker's opinion did agree to Rutledge's request that Piazza's specific award be reversed and sent back for further evaluation. In a statement Thursday, a spokesman for Rutledge said the attorney general was "disappointed in today's opinion, which denied sovereign immunity to the State on a request for attorneys' fees in a public funds illegal exaction case."

Baker was joined in the majority by Justices Robin Wynne, Courtney Goodson and Josephine "Jo" Hart. Chief Justice Dan Kemp dissented, along with Justices Rhonda Wood and Shawn Womack.

In his dissent, Kemp commended Wilson for "efforts during the course of this litigation to expose any alleged wrongdoing," while nonetheless stating that sovereign immunity should bar Wilson from receiving attorney fees. Womack, also a former lawmaker, wrote a separate dissent.

Wilson said Thursday that he had spent nearly $20,000 of his own money on the case, which he hoped to recoup from the court's eventual award for attorneys' fees. The rest, he said, would go to his attorney, John Ogles.

Information for this article was contributed by Lisa Hammersly of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 04/19/2019

Print Headline: Court rules funds-case plaintiff is owed fees

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