Legal conferences pose conflict for attorneys general

Kansas City StarDecember 9, 2008 

Attorneys general from around the nation are attending professional and political conferences this month — paid for in large part by corporations and lobbyists with potential legal issues in their states.

Among those attending, or planning to attend, the sessions: Kansas Attorney General Steve Six and incoming Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, both Democrats.

The donors? Drug companies, tobacco firms, alcohol lobbyists, banks, energy companies and labor unions, among others.

Critics say the conferences — combined with corporate donations, sponsorships and political contributions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — represent at least the appearance of a conflict of interest for the attorneys general, and could be improper.

"There is a significant appearance … of people currying favor who might conceivably be subject to prosecution, and I think it is inappropriate," said Monroe Freedman, an expert on legal ethics at Hofstra University.

Bob Stephan, a former Kansas attorney general, agreed that there is the potential for abuse. "They have to be very careful," he said.

But the local attorneys general, and the groups holding the conferences, say that the sessions are just an opportunity to share insights and programs among their peers, and that corporate sponsorships and access for lobbyists do not present a conflict of interest.

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