Mississippi AG Hood Fights to Keep State Farm Deal Secret

May 18, 2009

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has asked a court to block renewed efforts to make public a settlement agreement between his office and insurer State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. that was part of their feud over homeowner claims from Hurricane Katrina.

Hood’s office filed a motion last week asking the court to deny requests from Mississippi media outlets and a political Web site to unseal the settlement. The agreement has been kept under wraps by court order since it was reached in February 2008 and at one point Hood’s office denied to reporters that it even existed.

The settlement was reached after State Farm sued Hood, accusing him of using the threat of criminal prosecution to force through settlements in civil lawsuits over Katrina claims. Hood denied the allegation.

Earlier this month, the Web site Y’allPolitics.com and several television stations filed motions urging the court to make the agreement public.

Hood said in a response filed last Monday that the court has no authority to open records on a closed case and that the reasons the “testimony and settlement agreement were sealed are equally applicable now.”

Hood’s spokeswoman Jan Schaefer said that the court filing “outlines our arguments and speaks for us.”

State Farm also asked the court to keep the records under seal. A judge did not immediately rule on the matter.

“Our stance is that we have an agreement with General Hood and we intend to continue fully honoring that agreement,” company spokesman Jeff McCollum said. “State Farm intends to continue its full compliance with the court’s orders.”

U.S. District Judge David Bramlette sealed the terms of the settlement when it was reached last year. Less than two weeks later, Hood wrote a letter to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper of Jackson that said “allegations lodged against me by this insurer were shown to be false when a federal judge recently threw out a lawsuit it had filed against my office.”

The next day, Hood’s spokeswoman sent an e-mail to reporters that said 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,” spokeswoman Jan Schaefer wrote at the time. “The case was dismissed because the allegations were false.”

After Schaefer’s e-mail to reporters said there was no settlement, a State Farm attorney questioned if Hood could be held in contempt of court. An e-mail from State Farm apparently was accidentally sent to more than a dozen reporters, including several from The Associated Press.

In response to Schaefer’s e-mail, lawyer Sheila L. Birnbaum wrote, “This is so over the top. Can we ask that he be held in contempt of court for misrepresenting a settlement agreement and order of the court?”

“No, you can’t,” Schaefer responded in an e-mail that also was sent reporters.

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