Published August 16 2012
Forum Fact Check: New ad targets Heitkamp’s ties to attorneys in Big Tobacco suit
The Democratic U.S. Senate candidate fired back almost immediately in a news conference in Fargo.
Heitkamp sought to debunk the ad, saying she’s not going to tolerate the “nefarious and inappropriate” claims from Crossroads GPS.
The group’s new 30-second spot – its second in as many weeks – alleges Heitkamp, as former attorney general, had inappropriate ties with an out-of-state law firm, whose services she tapped in the aftermath of the Big Tobacco fight in the 1990s.
The ad insinuates that state dollars were used to pay for the firm’s services, a claim that “is absolutely not true,” Heitkamp said.
She also denied claims that she engaged in “pay to play” activities with a top lawyer from the firm that resulted in political and/or financial gain for them both.
“Nothing that they say in this ad is true as it relates to my relationship with this firm,” Heitkamp said. “Rick Berg’s friends need to stop the lies, stop the smear campaign and stop lying to North Dakotans – because I’m not going to let them.”
Candidates are prohibited by law from coordinating with third-party groups, like Crossroads GPS, so Heitkamp’s Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Berg, has no direct ties to the ad.
Berg campaign spokesman Chris Van Guilder neither supported nor condemned Crossroads’ claims. However, he noted that ads from national Democratic groups have similarly targeted Berg.
“(Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid has invested nearly $2 million into North Dakota to falsely attack Rick Berg,” Van Guilder said. “In addition to flooding the airwaves with his attack ads, he has funded her campaign with his own contributions and fundraisers with liberal allies across the country.”
Majority PAC – a Democratic super PAC – has spent at least $653,000 on anti-Berg ad buys in North Dakota this year, while Crossroads GPS has shelled out more than $700,000 to target Heitkamp.
Crossroads GPS is spending $162,000 to run its new ad for one week in North Dakota. The group is affiliated with American Crossroads, a super PAC that’s run by Republican strategist Karl Rove and can raise unlimited funds.
Narrator: “As attorney general, Heitkamp appointed an out-of-state trial lawyer …”
While Heitkamp was attorney general, she played a key role in negotiating a nationwide lawsuit against four of the largest U.S. tobacco companies. She was one of 46 attorneys general to successfully sue Big Tobacco for recovery of tobacco-related medical costs. North Dakota joined the lawsuit only after the settlement was agreed upon in November 1998, Heitkamp said.
Under the settlement, the companies agreed to pay at least $206 billion over the first 25 years of the settlement. Participating states were to receive annual payments in perpetuity.
To oversee the implementation and enforcement of the settlement in North Dakota, Heitkamp tapped John “Jack” McConnell, Jr. – a Rhode Island trial lawyer who worked for a South Carolina firm now known as Motley Rice.
The firm was among the private litigators helping various states’ attorneys general in the tobacco lawsuit. However, North Dakota never retained outside counsel.
With a year left in her second term as attorney general, Heitkamp appointed McConnell as a “special assistant attorney general” to work solely on administering the tobacco settlement.
In 2001, Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem took over for Heitkamp. Stenehjem re-appointed McConnell to the post.
McConnell remained in that capacity until February 2009, when the North Dakota Attorney General’s office determined the need for his legal services “had concluded,” according to a letter the office sent McConnell.
Narrator: “… whose firm got paid millions.”
For its national work on litigating and negotiating the settlement with Big Tobacco, Motley Rice received attorneys’ fees. The money came by way of the settlement paid by the tobacco companies.
In a July 2010 letter to U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., McConnell wrote:
“As a result of my work for the firm, I have received between $2-3 million per year since 1999. I anticipate receiving future deferred compensation for work performed and completed for the firm on tobacco litigation of approximately $2.5 million to $3.1 million each year through 2024.”
Narrator: “…then the trial lawyer’s firm donated tens of thousands of dollars to Heitkamp’s campaign.”
McConnell and employees tied to the firm for which he worked gave significant contributions to both the Democratic-NPL Party and Heitkamp’s unsuccessful bid for governor in 2000.
According to a May 2002 Forum article:
McConnell gave $40,000 to the state party, plus $25,000 to Heitkamp’s state campaign, and “four lawyers from his (firm) are among large donors to the state party.”
In 2011, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, alleged those political contributions were actually higher.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Cornyn said McConnell gave $30,000 to Heitkamp’s state campaign, and McConnell and employees at his law firm gave at least $73,000 to the state Democratic-NPL.
Narrator: … now they’re her biggest contributor. It’s called ‘pay to play.’”
This year, as Heitkamp seeks a U.S. Senate seat, employees of Motley Rice are Heitkamp’s top individual source of contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, employees of Motley Rice had given $40,750 to Heitkamp’s campaign as of July 1.
That represents nearly 2 percent of the $2.1 million she has raised so far.
Heitkamp has also received sizable contributions from employees of other trial lawyer firms and supporters of lawyer-advocacy groups.
Narrator: “First Heitkamp dodged questions on the deal, then said the state didn’t pay him.”
In May 2011, McConnell was confirmed as a U.S. District Court judge for Rhode Island.
Prior to that though, his Senate confirmation was rife with controversy over allegations he championed “pay to play” politics.
Republican senators opposing his appointment, most notably Cornyn, cited McConnell’s and Heitkamp’s ties as an example of the practice.
When PlainsDaily.com – a now-defunct North Dakota news website with conservative ties – first wrote about the connections, the site reported that Heitkamp didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The reporter was Kate Bommarito, who is now communications director for Republican U.S. House candidate Kevin Cramer.
The next day, Heitkamp openly denied Cornyn’s allegations in an interview with The Forum.
“He should know better. Shame on him,” Heitkamp said. “This ‘pay to play’ is absolutely ridiculous.”
In 2011 and again Thursday, Heitkamp provided documentation – verified by McConnell’s testimony to the U.S. Senate – that shows McConnell served in the North Dakota attorney general’s office “without compensation.”
“Jack McConnell didn’t receive a dime for any legal work that he ever did for the state of North Dakota,” Heitkamp said in May 2011.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541