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State wants panel to resolve fee fight

The state of Florida, claiming a dispute over attorneys' fees from its $11-billion tobacco settlement has jeopardized funding for children, filed a motion Tuesday to send the case to arbitration.

The motion, signed by Gov. Lawton Chiles and Attorney General Bob Butterworth, asks a judge to order formation of a three-person panel to set fees for the 12 lawyers who worked on the state's landmark tobacco lawsuit.

The state says it cannot get access to any of the $750-million already paid by the tobacco industry until the fees dispute is resolved. Six lawyers, including Tampa lawyer Steve Yerrid, have filed liens against the money pending a resolution.

"It does put the money at jeopardy that will be used for children's health care as well as anti-smoking programs," Butterworth said.

Five of the private attorneys who represented the state in its lawsuit against cigarette makers maintain they should be paid 25 percent of the settlement _ the percentage they agreed to in their contingency contract signed nearly three years ago.

However, the settlement reached Aug. 25 provides for the tobacco industry to pay "reasonable fees" to be determined by a three-member panel.

Bob Montgomery, the trial team's leader and a lienholder, said the motion filed Tuesday was between cigarette makers and the state.

"The state knows they owe us. The state knows we have a contract," he said.

He also balked at the state's claim they cannot use the money the industry already has paid into two escrow accounts.

Attorneys for the state, tobacco industry and the private lawyers met again Tuesday to work on a resolution. Their mediation meetings are confidential.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Harold Cohen has given attorneys until Monday to try to make a deal.

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