Government

Iowa's Tom Miller about to become longest-serving state attorney general ever

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller stands Dec. 30 next to a painting that depicts the time in 2003 he argued a case before
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller stands Dec. 30 next to a painting that depicts the time in 2003 he argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The painting is hung in his office in the Hoover State Office Building in Des Moines. He returned to argue another case in 2004. Both times, he prevailed. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Iowa elected officials continue to leave their seemingly indelible marks on U.S. history books.

First it was then-Gov. Terry Branstad becoming the nation’s longest serving governor in 2015. Then last year it was current 10-term state treasurer Michael Fitzgerald becoming the longest-serving state treasurer.

Now on Jan. 11, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller will become the longest-serving state attorney general in U.S. history.

According to his office, that day — Miller’s 13,520th as the leader of Iowa’s Department of Justice — he will eclipse former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley’s mark of having served 37 years and five days until his run ended in January 1999.

“It certainly doesn’t seem like 37 years but if you add them up, I guess that’s what it is,” said Miller, 75, during an interview in his office in the Hoover State Office Building in Des Moines.

“I feel happy and proud that I will be the longest-serving attorney general in the history of the country. That’s a distinction. I have great respect for state attorney generals. I’ve served with a lot of them now over those years and they’ve been terrific people that serve the public interest and they’re my friends, my colleagues.

“ ... It’s a great job, using the law to serve the interests of ordinary Iowans,” Miller said. “It’s been a great place to work in part because of the people that have been here.”

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Serving Iowans’ interests has brought the Democrat up against some heavy-hitting foes in his legal battles — the tobacco industry, Microsoft, bank mortgage lenders and “Big Pharma” prescription drug companies. Also, prosecutors in his office worked with Iowa’s 99 county attorneys to put more than 300 offenders behind bars for life prison terms during his two stints in office that ran from 1979 to 1991 and then from January 1995 to the present.

“We’ve made consumer protection a very important part of our office, a very significant priority in part because you know that affects all Iowans,” he said. “Every day we’re consumers.”

Miller’s list of accomplishments working in concert with other states’ attorney general as well as his own staff is lengthy and impressive, starting with his role in 1998 as a key player in the historic Master Settlement Agreement with major tobacco companies that has yielded over $1.2 billion for the state and saved countless lives as Americans made a cultural shift away from tobacco use and marketing practices.

He also joined multistate efforts to successfully challenge Microsoft’s monopolistic practices, secure a $600 million settlement over an Equifax data breach and make Iowa part of a $25 billion state-federal mortgage servicing settlement over foreclosure wrongs as well as establishing a helpline to aid Iowans struggling with mortgage payments during a period of deep recession nationally.

Miller said the tobacco settlement was a major break through, and he credited the work of anti-smoking advocates and tobacco control groups for leading the charge that attorneys general took up in the legal arena. They used a “truth initiative” foundation that included a focus on tobacco marketing aimed at minors.

“It was a pivotal point in terms of tobacco use and the perception of the tobacco companies when we got in the case and resolved it. Prior to our being involved, the tobacco companies had never paid a dime in terms of a judgment or a settlement. They were a unique industry in that way. When we were done with the settlement, they were going to pay out more as an industry than any other industry. More significantly, we sort of broke the invincibility of the tobacco companies in the public concept and in the public opinion,” Miller said.

“They had enormous power with legislators and with the Congress and I think we broke that to some extent.”

In 1998, Miller and attorneys general of 45 states signed the master settlement agreement with the nation’s four largest tobacco companies to end state suits to recover billions of dollars in state health care costs associated with treating smoking-related illnesses. Since then, more than 40 other tobacco companies have signed onto the agreement, he said.

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The landmark agreement — the largest of its kind in U.S. history — called for tobacco companies to pay the 46 states $206 billion over 25 years, and continue annual payments beyond 25 years based on the number of cigarettes sold in the United States.

The master settlement agreement created a broad array of restrictions on the advertising, marketing and promotion of cigarettes. Since 1999, when tobacco companies sent their first payments to the states, Iowa has received more than $1.1 billion in both regular and additional payments.

“Of all the big cases, our chances of winning the tobacco case were less than those other cases. We were on a legal theory that was novel, that was somewhat unusual. We were saying that they were liable for the financial harm that they caused to the state through the payment of Medicaid expenses and insurance to deal with tobacco-related disease — that they’ve created a nuisance and other kinds of responsibilities. It was a breaking case that hadn’t been ruled on before, so it was a challenging case. But we thought that with 400,000 Americans — 5,000 Iowans — dying each year from tobacco-related diseases, the enormous deception that they had engaged in, that we needed to do anything that we could and when they came to the table to negotiate.

“It occurred to me that they were worried about this — that they were certainly more worried than we certainly were of our position. So that gave me some extra confidence at the time.”

Miller still has irons in the fire as his office continues to gather information after meeting with bishops and survivors and has set up a hotline regarding potential abuse of Iowans by members of the clergy; has joined with other state attorneys general in suing Purdue Pharma over its role in the nation’s opioid crisis; and in investigating practices by Google and Facebook.

Miller lost his first campaign for the office to Republican incumbent Richard Turner in 1974.

Miller’s interaction with Iowans during his successful bid to become attorney general in 1978 persuaded him to establish the first farm division in the AG’s office. He became a powerful ally for farmers by helping to create the Iowa Mediation Service in 1984, which helped hundreds to remain on their farms during the credit crisis of the mid-1980s.

He also helped settle a Smithfield Foods’ challenge to Iowa’s limits on corporate control of all levels of pork production, and he joined a lawsuit to block the merger of large beef processors.

In the early 1990s, Miller led efforts to fight telemarketing fraud by installing an elderly victim’s phone number in the AG’s office, which resulted in convictions of would-be fraudsters. His office also has obtained $1 million in refunds for victims of misleading sweepstakes solicitations and has led efforts to combat annoying “spoofing” calls in Iowa.

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On the criminal side, Miller’s office has been a leader in combating sexually violent predators, aided county attorneys in prosecuting some of Iowa’s most heinous criminal cases, recovered $215 million in public employee pension investments put at risk by fraud and brought felony charges in the Iowa Film Office’s tax credit fiasco.

He also successfully argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, one to uphold an Iowa criminal conviction — something he described as “an absolutely incredible experience” and “sort of the lawyer’s dream.”

He fought legislative efforts to reinstate the death penalty in Iowa.

“I felt strongly for a variety of reasons that we should not have the death penalty in Iowa. Primarily because I don’t think it’s a deterrent and not being a deterrent there are some moral questions that are raised about using the death penalty.” he said.”

Also, death penalty cases can easily overwhelm the prosecution’s office and the Supreme Court’s time and deliberation, Miller said.

“What we’ve talked about in the context of opposing the death penalty is that we do have life, we have a real life imprisonment in Iowa for those kinds of first-degree murder cases. You know in some states if you get life, they can calculate it out to 18 years on average. Not in Iowa. Life means life in Iowa, and I think that that’s a good balance to strike in terms of protecting the public.”

While being attorney general is his first love as an elected official, it was not his first choice when he thought about getting into the political arena.

The Dubuque native was educated at Wahlert High School, Loras College and Harvard Law School before serving in several capacities including a city attorney in northeast Iowa and a legislative aide to then-U. S. Rep. John Culver, who he described as his “mentor and hero.”

Miller said he initially set his sights on Congress, but a series of events caused him to seek the AG’s office as the Democratic candidate instead.

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After Iowa’s U.S. Sen. Harold Hughes retired in 1974, Culver ran for his Senate seat and a close friend, Mike Blouin, announced for Culver’s House seat.

The diverted him to compete in the attorney general’s race instead “and I’m sure glad I did that,” he said.

Miller’s four-year hiatus from the AG office occurred in 1990 when he decided to seek his party’s nomination for governor. But Don Avenson claimed that prize, and Miller spent four years in private law practice in Des Moines before running to reclaim the attorney general’s position.

He’s held the job since.

“It was mixed experience to be sure,” Miller said of his failed gubernatorial bid, “but it’s probably a necessary experience. If you get to be attorney general at 34 — a relatively young age — if you have enough drive and ambition to do that, you probably want to be governor, too, and I did,” he said. “I ran for governor. I got my chance. I gave it all that I could, but it didn’t work out and then I was able to come back as attorney general.”

Miller has been active in Democratic politics and endorsed Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in the 2020 presidential nominating process before Bullock withdraw in December. Miller said he expects to make a new endorsement before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, but wouldn’t say yet who that will be.

“I’m sort of recovering from Steve not running. He a terrific guy, a terrific candidate. He would have been our strongest candidate in the general election,” said Miller.

As far as his own future as he stretches out his record time as the nation’s longest-serving attorney general at least until his term ends in early 2023, Miller was just as non-committal.

“This could be the last term, but I’m not entirely sure and don’t want to issue a total statement one way or another,” he said. “This could be my last term, but I haven’t decided for sure.”

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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