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Judge signals opening of law firm's data

•  Political and Legal     updated  2008/03/12 20:52

A Hennepin County judge said Tuesday that an upcoming trial pitting a lawyer against his former firm should be open to the public.

Attorneys for Heins Mills & Olson of Minneapolis had filed a motion to close the courtroom when "highly confidential information" on its financial affairs is discussed. The firm is being sued by a former partner who says he was deprived of his fair share of $103 million in legal fees from the settlement of a nationwide class-action suit against AOL Time Warner.

Judge Denise Reilly also hinted that she might order more documents unsealed, saying there was a higher burden of proof to keep them secret as the trial approached. But she said she would reconsider requests for sealing individual documents before the trial starts June 2.

"The trial is going to be open and I'll get out an order on the protective orders and also which exhibits are going to be open at trial," she said.

Paul Civello, an attorney for Heins Mills, argued Tuesday to keep the documents sealed, saying the information was private and public disclosure could harm the firm as well as third parties.

But John Borger, a Star Tribune attorney, said that when someone is "dragged into court," such documents become public. "It happens all the time," he said. Reilly granted the Star Tribune's request to intervene in the case.

Civello said that while it is a balancing act, the privacy interests of Heins Mills outweigh public access. "We are not asking for a completely closed trial," he said, noting the suit was not about how much public money the firm got, but how, in private hands, the money was distributed.

Heins Mills was retained by Attorney General Mike Hatch in 2002 after the state lost nearly $250 million in pension fund investments because of allegedly false and misleading statements by AOL Time Warner. A federal judge in New York consolidated the lawsuits against the conglomerate and named Minnesota the lead plaintiff, appointing Heins Mills the lead attorney for the entire class of plaintiffs.

Heins Mills reached a $2.65 billion settlement with AOL Time Warner in 2005 and the state got back $3.3 million.

Of the $103 million in legal fees awarded Heins Mills, documents indicate Samuel Heins got $48 million and his wife, Stacey Mills, got $32 million. Former partner Brian Williams got $4 million. He sued, claiming he was due more.

Reilly postponed the trial for three months after a Star Tribune story on the case last month created "unflattering" pre-trial publicity, she said.

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