Nicotine Fit

He's been thrown out of court on his ear, but Roger Conant is still railing about the legal fees from the tobacco settlement

At the heart of Conant's suit is a fairly narrow legal issue: Can a law firm working for the state receive compensation without the express approval of the Legislature or special authorization from the governor or chief justice? Conant argues that Ciresi's negotiations with the state represent "an end run" around the constitutionally mandated division between the legislative and executive branches. The Legislature, he contends, ought to have the right to determine how much the firm gets for its work.

"My vision of Ciresi was that he was working for the state much like a soldier would fight for his country, only Ciresi didn't put his life on the line," posits the indefatigable litigant. "And I think it's untoward for people working for the state to get rich beyond belief."

To Ciresi, Conant's efforts represent an annoyance, and an insult. "Everybody knows that this is a frivolous lawsuit," the attorney says curtly. "I don't want to discuss it anymore. It's really a nonissue. If they want to appeal it, let them all appeal it. That's their right," he notes, predicting that further legal action will only result in more sanctions. "Any sanction would go to a charitable cause that the judge selects. We made that very clear," Ciresi adds. "We don't want a penny."

Suing Ciresi: Roger Conant and state Sen. Tom Neuville
Suing Ciresi: Roger Conant and state Sen. Tom Neuville

From the outset Conant's suit was decried as a partisan attack launched by a small gaggle of staunch Republicans aiming to take the glow off Humphrey's tobacco victory just as he was making a run for the governor's mansion. Conant and crew provided plenty of grist for that mill. After all, he and Neuville (who ran against Humphrey in the '94 race for attorney general) were recruited by Steve Young after the attorney trolled for plaintiffs at last summer's state GOP convention--a forum Young now regrets selecting, on the grounds of "decorum."

Ciresi is a bit more blunt in his assessment: "Here they are ambulance-chasing on the floor of the Republican convention--a frivolous lawsuit when the Republican Party has a plank that we should restrict frivolous lawsuits."

Still, Conant and Young insist they have no partisan aim, merely an ideological one. "The media is hung up on stereotypes, and they have not seen through to a deeper, more significant reality: that the law is important, that the law doesn't justify this, that there's something wrong with the public policy of the tobacco settlement," Young asserts. "We are doing a very important public service by raising these issues for the people and the courts and the newspapers to talk about.

"This is the classic case of the little guys standing up to power, saying, 'Wait a minute, was the law violated?'" Young continues. "Conant and Neuville ought to be rewarded by a grateful public for raising the issue."

Of course, if Judge Albrecht's decision stands, Conant and Neuville will simply wind up digging a bit deeper into their wallets. Just like today's smokers.

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