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VICTOR JOECKS: Ford’s old employer to rake in tens of millions from opioid settlement

Swampy behavior isn’t limited to Washington, D.C. Just look at how Attorney General Aaron Ford enabled his previous employer to score a payday that could top $40 million.

This month, Ford announced that Nevada would join a multistate opioid settlement. Nevada and local governments will receive $285 million. That was a reversal from August, when Ford declined to join the agreement. At the time, he said he wanted a settlement that “more adequately addresses the devastation” caused by the opioid crisis.

Four months later, Ford decided that amount was good enough after all. “Money is needed now to address comprehensive statewide remediation,” he said.

But Nevadans suffering from opioid addiction aren’t the only ones who will benefit from this payout. After approval from Gov. Steve Sisolak, Ford oversaw the hiring of outside legal counsel in 2019 to deal with the opioid problem. The firm just happened to be his old employer.

“The state contract states that contingency fee counsel will receive 19 percent — 19, a mere 19 percent — in fees for these recoveries,” Ford said in a news conference announcing his decision.

In the real world, 19 percent isn’t a “mere” 19 percent. Imagine your reaction if your mortgage company or landlord said your monthly payment was going up a “mere 19 percent.”

Nineteen percent is a lot of money, especially when the pot is $285 million. For money going to local governments, a judge did limit outside lawyers’ fees to 15 percent.

Ford declined to say how much outside counsel will receive, citing the unknowns of federal claims and costs. Assume outside counsel ends up netting 15 percent of the total. That’s more than $40 million.

There are two problems.

The first is strategic. The point of paying outside counsel is to seek the highest dollar amount in court. Under Adam Laxalt, the previous attorney general, Nevada went after opioid companies using its own attorneys with an eye on a multistate settlement.

If Ford had pursued that strategy, Nevada wouldn’t be giving private attorneys millions of dollars. The justification for outside counsel was that they could get the state more than it would receive under a multistate agreement. His office didn’t respond to a request for comment on the benefit Nevadans received from paying outside counsel.

The second requires understanding a bit of history. In 2015, the Legislature unanimously passed a bill capping contingency fees to outside counsel at $10 million. Ford, then a state senator, voted for the bill. That’s common sense. You want settlement money going to taxpayers, not lawyers. Only personal injury attorneys could oppose that, right?

In October 2015, Ford became a partner with Eglet Prince, a local personal injury law firm. Ford had been a partner with Snell and Wilmer. Despite that, he had money problems. The IRS filed liens against him in 2013 and 2014. Including unpaid taxes, fees and interest, he owed the IRS more than $185,000. In early 2016, shortly after being hired by Eglet Prince, the IRS released the liens.

In 2017, Ford became Senate majority leader, which gave him significant influence over legislation. The best way to slip something into a bill without scrutiny is to use a conference committee on the last day of session. Lo and behold. On the session’s last day, a conference committee amendment to a bill on occupational licensing replaced the $10 million cap on damages with a 25 percent limit.

In 2019, Ford became attorney general. He recused himself from the selection process, but unsurprisingly, Ford’s old firm received the contract. Now that firm will be raking in $40 million or so.

Presumably, Ford was smart enough not to overtly break any laws or violate ethics standards. But it’s hard to know the whole story and not feel that taxpayers got ripped off.

Perhaps Ford knows a good law firm who could investigate this further for a mere 19 percent.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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