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Heitkamp denies 'pay to play' claims

BISMARCK -- Former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp's connection with a federal judicial nominee was used by Republicans this week to oppose his nomination.

As part of their opposition to the Rhode Island nominee who was confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday, Republicans spoke out against campaign contributions that Jack McConnell Jr. gave Heitkamp during the Democrat's 2000 race for North Dakota governor and his part as a special assistant in the state's tobacco lawsuit.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and other conservatives have referred to the working relationship between Heitkamp and McConnell as "pay to play."

Heitkamp called Cornyn's comments "incorrect and irresponsible" and said she found it "appalling" that a U.S. senator "would know so little about the facts."

"He should know better. Shame on him," Heitkamp said. "This pay to play is absolutely ridiculous."

On the Senate floor on Tuesday, Cornyn said Heitkamp appointed McConnell as a special assistant attorney general to represent the state in tobacco litigation, and McConnell and his wife contributed $30,000 to Heitkamp's gubernatorial campaign.

McConnell and his law firm contributed an additional $73,000 to the North Dakota Democratic Party during the campaign cycle, making them the No. 4 campaign contributor, Cornyn said.

"Now, there's nothing wrong with people contributing money to political candidates or parties or causes that they believe in, but it's another matter when these contributions are made in connection with no-bid contracts or apparent political favors," Cornyn said.

McConnell will receive $2.5 million to $3.1 million a year through 2024 as part of his payoff for his work in the tobacco litigation, Cornyn claimed.

On Wednesday, Heitkamp provided the pages of the master settlement agreement that refer to "Designation of Outside Counsel." While other states have outside lawyers named to receive compensation for representation, next to North Dakota is the word "none."

"Jack McConnell didn't receive a dime for any legal work that he ever did for the state of North Dakota," Heitkamp said. "He served without compensation."

No one outside of the North Dakota Attorney General's Office was compensated for the legal work, she said.

She said McConnell was appointed special assistant as he was in other states and the appointment carried over under Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

Stenehjem's office confirmed Wednesday that McConnell continued as a special assistant until 2009. The office provided 11 related pages of paperwork. Included are oaths of office that state "without compensation from the Office of Attorney General" and are signed by McConnell.

Forum Comunications wrote about McConnell's campaign contributions to Heitkamp in a 2002 story.

"We got to see what a fine public servant she was," McConnell said at the time. "It was very clearly out of the friendship and respect we had for Heidi."

McConnell's profile on the Motley Rice law firm website describes him as having more than 20 years of experience in complex litigation. He led the trial team representing the state of Rhode Island against major manufacturers of lead paint.

His career also has involved asbestos cases and trials, including several mass consolidation cases on behalf of more than 10,000 asbestos victims in Maryland, Mississippi and West Virginia, according to his profile.

It also states he played a central role in litigation against the tobacco industry on behalf of the state attorneys general, serving as a negotiator and primary drafter of the master settlement agreement.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a statement stating it was opposing a federal district court nominee for the first time. President and CEO Thomas Donohue said McConnell would not be an impartial judge.

"He has shown a bias against business throughout his career, received a mediocre rating from the American Bar Association and has millions in payouts coming his way from his years as a plaintiffs' lawyer that would create a massive conflict of interest," Donohue said in the statement.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said McConnell is "completely qualified" to be a U.S. district judge and said he received bipartisan support when he was nominated and approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., voted against McConnell.

"Based on Mr. McConnell's testimony and published statements, he would be a judicial activist, legislating from the bench, and the senator doesn't believe in that judicial approach," Hoeven spokesman Don Canton said.

Finneman reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.