U.S. District Court Judge David Bramlette last week ordered the unsealing of materials from the settlement of the 2007 lawsuit by State Farm Insurance against Attorney General Jim Hood, giving a victory to a media coalition seeking to open the records. Hood opposed lifting the seal. More materials should be released soon unless Hood continues his opposition to their release.

Following Hurricane Katrina, Hood pursued criminal investigations against State Farm. Meanwhile, the Scruggs Katrina Group (Dickie Scruggs, Zach Scruggs, Sid Backstrom, Don Barrett and other lawyers) sought a class action civil lawsuit against State Farm.

On January 23, 2007, Hood sent a letter to State Farm's lawyer writing, "In light of the cooperation by State Farm...in the criminal investigation...and State Farm's willingness to enter into a [civil] settlement agreement," Hood would not bring criminal charges against State Farm. On the same day, State Farm and the Scruggs Katrina Group announced, "a court supervised resolution process to reconsider and fully resolve claims...part of an agreement reached through the settlement of a class action lawsuit."

But later that year, Hood issued a criminal grand jury subpoena against State Farm. State Farm then sued Hood in his official capacity as Attorney General for failure to abide by their agreement. In February 2008, State Farm and Hood settled that lawsuit with transcripts sealed from the public.

Jackson New Media, Inc., the publisher of YallPolitics.com; and Raycom Media, the owner of three Mississippi televisions stations - WLBT in Jackson, WLOX of Biloxi, and WDAM of Hattiesburg - filed a motion before Judge Bramlette to unseal the details. Last week, he did just that.

While not providing much new information, the settlement transcript does provide further context to a media dust-up shortly after settlement.
During the settlement conference on February 6, 2008, Judge Bramlette specifically asked Hood how he would respond to media requests about the settlement. Hood responded, "In order to protect the seal, certainly, the only comment would be that the case was dismissed. And, of course, they'll ask me about the criminal case; and I would not make any comment, which is always what I'm bound ethically to do, is not make any comment about the criminal case, say, 'I can't comment about that.'"

However, less than two weeks later, Hood wrote in a Jackson daily newspaper, "In fact, allegations lodged against me by this insurer (State Farm) were shown to be false when a federal judge recently threw out a lawsuit it had filed against my office." Then his spokesperson e-mailed the press saying, "Just wanted to note that General Hood has been on record (more than once) as saying the only thing under seal in the federal case, State Farm v. Hood, is matters related to the state's criminal investigation of State Farm. The federal judge ordered that information to be protected. There is no 'settlement'. The only reason it is referred to as such is because the details of the Attorney General's criminal investigation needed to be protected. The case was dismissed because the allegations were false."

Sheila Birnbaum a lawyer for State Farm, rather than forwarding her thoughts inadvertently "replied all" to the e-mail writing, "This is so over the top. Can we ask that [Hood] be held in contempt of court for misrepresenting a settlement agreement and order of the court." Hood's office curtly replied, "No you can't."

YallPolitics.com Editor Alan Lange responded on his website, "The evidence of the settlement agreement shows that Jim Hood just plain lied to the voters and taxpayers of Mississippi about the existence of this agreement and its meaning. He knew the truth and publicly said otherwise. For seemingly no better reason than to avoid a bad press day, Jim Hood and his press secretary actively and deliberately leveraged the fact that the agreement was sealed to intentionally mischaracterize it, hoping that it would never see the light of day. When media groups filed to access it, his office wasted taxpayer dollars and fought us every step of the way. The settlement agreement released today completely verified our suspicions and entirely validated our position."

The media coalition also asked Judge Bramlette for Dickie Scruggs' testimony in this matter. The court denied that request because it "did not receive the deposition into evidence, and the deposition does not otherwise appear of record...the Court can neither seal nor unseal what it does not have."

But as to the media coalition's request for the testimony of Courtney Schloemer (a staff attorney with the Attorney General's office), Judge Bramlette gave Hood five days from the date of the order (September 2) to claim privilege. If Hood does not, we should be reading the Schloemer testimony very soon. Otherwise, the Court will give Hood 30 days to give legal reason for each redacted line of testimony.

Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.