House OKs restoration of claims in tobacco suit Industry lobbied mightily against effort

General Assembly

March 31, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

In a setback for the tobacco industry, the House of Delegates narrowly approved legislation last night designed to help the state recoup billions of dollars from cigarette manufacturers.

The 76-59 vote came after extended and sometimes emotional debate that made clear that the issue is far from settled with 13 days remaining in the General Assembly's 90-day session.

The bill is aimed at undoing an adverse ruling last year by the judge in the state's multi-billion dollar lawsuit against cigarette companies -- a ruling that potentially crippled the state's case.

"We have a situation where corporate America has taken advantage of our citizens," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard Democrat. "This is a chance to put us back in the [legal] situation we should be in."

Earlier, a Senate committee working on its version of the legislation approved an amendment that would force the state to renegotiate its contract with Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos, who is handling the state's tobacco case. Angelos now stands to collect 25 percent of the state's recovery, a figure that many legislators consider far too high.

Angelos has informally agreed to cut his fee, but the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee decided it would be prudent to force the issue, said Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat and vice chairman of the panel. That matter is expected to come up in the Senate today.

The tobacco bill, which was proposed by Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., would restore some claims against the industry in the state's effort to recover billions spent by the state caring for people with smoking-related illnesses.

A platoon of lobbyists for the tobacco industry, as well as some business groups, have tried to derail the bill, saying it unfairly rewrites the rules in the middle of a pending lawsuit.

But a coalition of House Democrats, largely from Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, voted for the bill. Voting against were all House Republicans and many conservative Democrats.

Joining the opponents was Del. Clay Opara, a Baltimore Democrat, who said the bill violated his legal principles by giving one side an extra advantage in a pending court case.

"This bill is not an altruistic solution," Opara said. "It's a desecration upon the protection this body gives every individual, every corporation. This is simply an end-around."

Opara and others said the state should be forced to appeal the adverse court ruling and live with the result.

But Curran has said it would be impractical to appeal the pretrial ruling, as the state would have to go through a lengthy trial and then wait for an appeal that could lead to another trial.

"It would be an abomination if we failed to pass this bill," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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