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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is shown during a press conference at her office in Little Rock in this file photo. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

For the second time, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has appealed to the state Supreme Court a judge's award of more than $300,000 in attorneys fees in a lawsuit that ended lawmakers' practice of spreading public money to local pet projects.

Former Jacksonville legislator Mike Wilson successfully argued that legislators individually directed spending from the state's General Improvement Fund for projects to gain support among voters, in a process that violated the state constitution. The Supreme Court ruled that the practice was unconstitutional.

Separately, the state justices ruled 4-3 in April that Jacksonville lawyer John Ogles should be paid for his work on the Wilson lawsuit that was originally filed in February of 2016.

Justices asked Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, who initially set the amount at $323,267, to review it, considering factors such as the experience and ability of the attorney, time and labor required, amount involved in the case and the results obtained. That fee was one-third of General Improvement Fund program money left over in the Central Arkansas Planning and Development district where Wilson sued.

Piazza's most recent ruling on June 19 left the amount unchanged.

The attorney general's appeal, filed Monday, comes "because the plaintiff's counsel has not produced any evidence to justify such a fee, which the Arkansas Supreme Court required," a spokesman said Tuesday.

Wilson disagreed in an interview Tuesday, saying his side produced that evidence already, including previous cases of Ogles', Wilson's affidavit and more than $160,000 in court fees logged by a different lawyer involved in early stages of the case, who worked against Wilson representing the Central Arkansas economic planning district.

"I think it's unfortunate the attorney general's position in this results in a roadblock against taxpayers who want to bring an illegal exaction suit" to declare a legislative act unconstitutional, Wilson said. "If there's no chance of recovery of the expense of litigation, including attorneys' fee, who's going to do it?"

Rutledge's office hasn't fared well in Supreme Court appeals of the case, Wilson v. Walther (60CV-16-862). The office has represented state officials against Wilson throughout.

The General Improvement Fund grant program amounted to tens of millions of dollars in unspent Arkansas tax revenue and interest that legislators personally approved for doling out through development districts.

Wilson has called it a "money-laundering machine" for lawmakers to fund pet projects.

Two sets of General Improvement Fund grants also were part of federal political corruption indictments that convicted at least two former state legislators -- Micah Neal in 2017 and Jon Woods in 2018.

Piazza first ruled against Wilson's lawsuit in November 2016. The state Supreme Court overturned the ruling in that first appeal in October 2017. The court, by a 5-2 vote, agreed with Wilson that General Improvement Fund spending violated the state constitution.

In March 2018, Piazza ruled that two-thirds of the nearly $1 million in leftover General Improvement Fund money be returned to the state treasury, but awarded one-third, $323,266, to Ogles for attorney fees. Wilson has said he won't share in those fees.

Rutledge's office appealed the fee ruling to the Supreme Court saying the state was protected against paying the fees by sovereign immunity. The justices in April, ruling against her a second time, said the Wilson lawsuit conferred a "substantial benefit" to taxpayers.

Before the Wilson v. Walther case, Wilson, a lawyer and a 12-term Democratic House member, twice before successfully sued to stop Arkansas legislators from individually doling out state money in violation of the constitution.

Information for this article was contributed by John Lynch of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 07/11/2019

Print Headline: AG again appeals paying $323,267 fee

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