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Florida Tobacco Money in Dispute

May 16, 1998

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The fight over Florida’s windfall from its settlement with cigarette makers is becoming more contentious than the battle that produced the agreement.

With lawmakers ready to spend the portion already paid by the tobacco industry in the $11 billion settlement and lawyers who worked on the case wrangling over how much of the money they will get, a judge decided Friday he will keep control over the $750 million down payment for now.

Lawmakers already have passed a bill giving them the right to decide how the money will be doled out. Gov. Lawton Chiles has until Tuesday to decide whether to sign, veto or let the bill become law without his signature.

But Circuit Judge Harold Cohen said any move by lawmakers to take control of the funds before they are released by the court overseeing the settlement would be illegal.

The $750 million has been paid into a private bank escrow fund.

But some of the money is in dispute, tied up in a court battle between Florida and the lawyers who represented the state in its negotiations with the industry after a disagreement over how much the attorneys should be paid.

To protect the disputed funds from any type of legislative appropriation, Cohen ordered the money moved out of the escrow account and into the court’s registry, where he will have sole discretion over how it is distributed.

``The law kind of smacks of some constitutional difficulties,″ Cohen said.

The state immediately appealed and asked the 4th District Court of Appeal to return the money to the NationsBank account. The state also asked the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in on the transfer of funds.

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