Politics & Government

Attorney General Roy Cooper ends 14-year feud with an apology

It took nearly 14 years and the threat of a contentious trial to resolve a feud between Roy Cooper and the family of the man he defeated to become attorney general in 2000.

To get it, Cooper, who is said to have his sights set on the governor’s job, had to offer something politicians are reluctant to deliver: an apology.

In a statement included in the settlement, Cooper and his aide Julia White called Dan Boyce and his family members ethical lawyers and honorable people. They apologized if a political ad they aired in 2000 implied anything contrary.

Boyce, a Raleigh lawyer who ran against Cooper for attorney general in 2000, filed a libel lawsuit against Cooper in November 2000 over a political ad aired by Cooper’s campaign. The commercial said Boyce had charged $28,000 an hour to represent taxpayers in a lawsuit against the state.

But the case Cooper’s ad referenced was handled by Boyce’s father, Gene Boyce, not him. The senior Boyce was awarded a fraction of that amount at the end of a class-action lawsuit that refunded more than $1 billion to taxpayers. The father and son, as well as Dan Boyce’s sister and brother-in-law, Laura and Philip Isley, brought a lawsuit against Cooper and his campaign, saying the ad defamed the family’s reputation and that of the law firm they had opened.

“My family and I are fortunate, unlike most folks, to have the ability to fight and clear our reputations from such false accusations,” said Gene Boyce, a veteran lawyer who spearheaded the family’s lawsuit against Cooper. “Not all people can endure over a decade of litigation after being so wrongly and widely attacked. I hope the result we achieved sends a strong message to future politicians. It tells them they are held accountable for false TV ads to the voting public of North Carolina and the United States.”

After bouncing through state and federal courts for more than a decade, the lawsuit was finally headed for trial later this month. Just last week, the Boyce family and Cooper’s attorneys seemed miles apart, agreeing on very little during a hearing to hammer out some issues for trial.

Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith urged the groups to try once more to find common ground. It took six hours Wednesday evening to broker an agreement that gave the Boyce family the apology they wanted and spared Cooper a costly and highly publicized trial. Cooper’s insurer will pay $75,000 in legal costs to the Boyce family.

“This is the result we’ve been trying to achieve for over a decade, and we are pleased,” said Morgan Jackson, a spokesman for Cooper. “The ad was based on Boyce campaign materials and court documents, but this settlement addresses any misunderstanding that occurred.”

‘Hit him soon’

The issues at the heart of the libel suit seem like ancient history. It was 2000, and for the first time in eight years, the job of attorney general was open after Mike Easley decided to run for governor. Cooper, a Democrat who had spent years as a state legislator representing the Rocky Mount area, decided to make his first foray into statewide politics.

The Republicans put their money behind Dan Boyce, an affable young lawyer who had spent years prosecuting federal crimes.

Both Cooper and Boyce were largely unknown across the state.

Boyce had a distinct asset: his father, Gene. The older Boyce had spent the better part of the prior decade suing the state to return taxes paid by hundreds of thousands of taxpayers. One suit involved taxes levied on intangible property of some retirees; another involved taxes on out-of-state stocks.

The taxes were deemed unconstitutional and resulted in hundreds of thousands of people receiving tax refunds. Through the campaign, Dan Boyce played up the positive association with his father’s success and good will with taxpayers.

In the summer of 2000, a poll showed that the race was close but that Boyce had a slight lead, according to court filings. Cooper’s team knew it needed to strike.

According to court filings, a Cooper campaign consultant sent an email to another campaign worker about the poll result, saying: “If this is true, we have to hit Boyce and hit him soon.”

Cooper’s campaign bought more than $1.2 million in advertising to attack Boyce. Cooper said in a deposition that he revised a draft of an ad his team had compiled. Cooper said in the deposition that he scratched out “demanding $1,200 an hour” and wrote in “charged $28,000 per hour.”

The ad told voters that a judge said the fee “shocked the conscience.” The hourly fee, the ad went on to explain, was more than a police officer earned in a year.

The commercial was broadcast across the state in the days leading up to the election. Boyce’s campaign urged Cooper to stop running the ad; it didn’t.

Boyce lost the race, winning 46 percent of the votes to Cooper’s 51 percent.

$23 million request

Gene Boyce, 81, spent his career embroiled in messy legal battles. He had a reputation for tackling complex tax disputes, and through the 1990s, forced the government to return more than a billion dollars in taxes.

In 1997, as he and another lawyer wrapped up a settlement in one of the cases, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning tried to calculate their compensation. Boyce and his partner filed a request for 16 percent of the payout.

Manning calculated the amount would come out to $28,000 an hour; he thought the figure was outrageously high for the time Boyce and his partner invested. Manning decided $1.6 million, not $23 million, was more appropriate.

Dan Boyce wasn’t involved in that case.

The accusations in Cooper’s ad enraged Gene Boyce. He thought it was a low – and untrue – blow that sullied his family’s reputation. He turned to what he knew best to rectify the wrong: the courts.

Working from home

For years, both sides dug in their heels. Cooper’s attorney said Dan Boyce’s campaign materials misled them – and the public – to believe that he’d helped win the tax lawsuit. They insisted that, if the ad was wrong, neither Cooper nor his campaign staff knew it was or acted with malice, a requirement for a libel claim against a public official.

They squared off in eight rounds of appeals. Cooper’s attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on aspects of the case; the court declined to hear it. Gene Boyce estimates he spent about $200,000 pursuing the case. He thinks Cooper’s team spent far more.

As the years passed, the younger Boyce children grew weary. Gene Boyce grew angrier. He wanted an apology. He wanted his family’s name cleared.

Boyce has scaled back his legal practice, but he refused to let the suit against Cooper go. He logged countless hours on the case in the basement of his home. Binders of legal briefs line shelves filled with his grandchildren’s stuffed animals. Exhibits for the approaching trial cover the table where he and three generations have played pool.

On Thursday, Gene Boyce tried to convince himself that the settlement was a victory. Boyce likes trying cases and had been looking forward to being back in the ring.

“I know people wanted me to get over it. When it’s done to you, you can’t get over it ,” Boyce said. “I needed the truth to come out.”