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Chiles' friend asks lawyers to give part of tobacco fees to help babies

A longtime friend of Gov. Lawton Chiles has asked the lawyers who fought for the state's tobacco settlement to donate a few million dollars of their legal fees to a cause Chiles championed _ healthy babies.

Dexter Douglass, counsel to Chiles until his death on Dec. 12, made the case for a major contribution to children during a dinner for the state-hired attorneys. The dinner was held at the Governor's Mansion shortly before Christmas.

The attorneys are seriously considering the plea, according to one of them, Palm Beach attorney Bob Montgomery.

"But for Lawton Chiles, we wouldn't have this money," Montgomery said. "I certainly think we ought to do something to dedicate ourselves to perpetuating the interests that Lawton Chiles had."

If they agree, some of their legal fees could go toward research on improving the health of newborns. The research is taking place at the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies in Tampa. Douglass also is helping the family form a Chiles Foundation.

Private law firms retained by the Chiles administration to sue the nation's cigarettemakers over the costs of smoking-related injuries were awarded $3.4 billion in legal fees.

As part of the state's tobacco settlement, cigarettemakers must pay the lawyers over several years, in addition to $12.7 billion the tobacco industry has agreed to pay the state over 25 years.

Douglass told the Miami Herald for its Saturday editions that he raised the idea of the lawyers giving "some of their largess" to the cause.

"I don't have any reason to believe they won't do something significant, but I am not strong-arming anybody. It has to be from their own motivations," he said.

Douglass said he mentioned no specific target. But Montgomery said Douglass tossed out a hypothetical figure: one percent. With nine Florida law firms expecting to receive about $205 million apiece, one percent of their total fees works out to roughly $18 million.

Two more out-of-state firms that collaborated with many states in suits against the tobacco industry will split the rest of the legal fees.

Pensacola lawyer Fred Levin was also promised a big cut for helping Chiles lay the legal groundwork for the lawsuit.