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Poultry behind bill to limit attorney general's authority

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ You won't find chicken tracks inside the state Capitol, but chickens _ and the litter they produce _ are at the heart of an attempt by some state lawmakers to restrict Attorney General Drew Edmondson's ability to file lawsuits on the state's behalf.

If successful, Edmondson _ Oklahoma's top legal officer _ would be the only attorney general in the nation without independent authority to file lawsuits, a policy the administrator of a national attorneys general group said would erode his authority and set a bad precedent.

``In terms of the office of attorney general and his role in state government, that is really a step backwards,'' said Lynne Ross, executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General.

Supporters said the legislation would provide oversight in how the attorney general conducts himself in the poultry case and other issues where his opinion may not reflect the beliefs of lawmakers and average citizens.

``It's an issue about who is going to set policy in the state of Oklahoma. The attorney general has said that he clearly believes that is his job,'' said Jeremy Rich, director of public policy for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau.

``State policy is the responsibility of the Oklahoma Legislature and we shouldn't do it through the courtroom,'' said Rep. Fred Morgan, R-Oklahoma City, the bill's author.

Edmondson has threatened to sue Oklahoma poultry producers over alleged pollution of eastern Oklahoma lakes and rivers. The attorney general believes phosphorous and other chemicals in poultry litter applied to land is making nearby waterways murky and giving water a bad taste.

``This has been going on for years. It can cause long-term damage to the soil and to the food chain,'' Edmondson said.

``I think the time will come when people will get infections from swimming in state lakes. I think the time will come when there are no more fish in our lakes or rivers that are polluted by poultry litter,'' he said.

Faced with millions of dollars in potential cleanup and prevention costs, poultry producers followed Edmondson to the negotiating table three years ago in an attempt to work out a water quality agreement.

But last month, Edmondson called off a negotiating session and accused the industry and the Farm Bureau of collaborating on an advertising campaign that attacked his office and undermined attempts to resolve the dispute.

The conflict took on a new form when the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee passed legislation that would require the attorney general to get authorization from the governor or the Legislature before a lawsuit is filed. The bill was sent to the House for action.

``I think it's bad government,'' the Democratic attorney general said. ``When the people vote for the attorney general, they think they are getting someone who is independent and will do what's best for the people.''

Even in the seven states where attorneys general are appointed either by the governor, the Legislature or the Supreme Court, there is no requirement that they get consent before filing litigation, Edmondson said.

``Every attorney general has as its first client the people of the state they represent. And that relationship takes precedence over all others,'' the attorney general said.

Ross said an attorney general's ability to take independent action is critical when dealing with environmental issues in which people may be at risk.

``One of the highest priorities of elected AGs is their duty to protect the public health and safety. You would like to think they have the tools to do that,'' she said.

But Rich said Edmondson, a former president of the NAAG, wields too much power and has demonstrated ``questionable behavior'' that does not represent the state's interests.

He cited Edmondson's participation in 2000 in a U.S. Supreme Court case concerning gay rights and the Boy Scouts of America.

Edmondson was criticized by state lawmakers after he filed a friend-of-the-court brief he said ``focused on the issue of states' rights'' and did not deal with the political issues involved. It supported a New Jersey court decision that ordered the Boy Scouts to reinstate a homosexual scout leader.

Edmondson said the pending legislation will not affect his ability to file similar briefs. Rich said an amendment will be filed to also restrict that authority.

``It is not an issue about poultry,'' said Rich, whose Farm Bureau organization has suggested specific language for Morgan's bill. ``I'm concerned that this AG is not interested in working out problems.''

Morgan said lawmakers are concerned Edmondson is trying to set state policy through litigation.

``Our job is to make sure taxpayer dollars are used wisely and getting the state involved in potentially expensive lawsuits without any input from the Legislature or the governor is not a good use of our financial resources,'' he said.

Edmondson said the bill demonstrates ``a fundamental lack of understanding'' of what an attorney general does.

Edmondson's office filed the lawsuit that resulted in a $2 billion settlement between big tobacco companies and Oklahoma. A former attorney general, Susan Loving, spearheaded the campaign law investigation of ex-Democratic Gov. David Walters.

Edmondson said he is willing to resume talks to avoid suing poultry companies.

``Our invitation is still open to the industry upon a showing of good faith to return to the negotiating table,'' he said.

``In the meantime, our attorneys are preparing to litigate. I wouldn't file it if I didn't think I could win.''
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