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Judgment against Cook upheld

Justices order him to pay additional fees

SHARE Judgment against Cook upheld

Merrill Cook's lengthy court battle over 1996 campaign bills is over, and Utah's former congressman must pay even more than he expected.

The Utah Supreme Court on Friday refused to overturn an April 2000 judgment ordering Cook to pay consultant Ron T. Nielson nearly $450,000 in unpaid services and attorneys' fees. The unanimous decision also directs Cook to pay Nielson's attorneys fees for the failed appeal.

The case was sent back to 3rd District Court to determine the additional amount.

An agreement provided that Cook would pay Nielson $40,000 for staffing and providing other needs for the state Republican convention phase of the campaign and $4,000 per month during the subsequent primary and general election phases.

The two men later disagreed whether Cook owed Nielson for the additional services. Nielson claimed Cook agreed after the convention to increase the base fee for the primary to $50,000 and to $150,000 for the lengthier general election period. Cook, on the other hand, said there was never a verbal agreement.

Jurors determined the contract was altered and that Cook owed $193,992. Third District Judge Sandra Peuler also ordered Cook to pay nearly $200,000 in attorneys' fees.

On appeal, Cook argued Peuler erred in awarding attorneys' fees to Nielson.

The contract allows the prevailing party in any court action stemming from the agreement to collect attorneys' fees.

But Cook disputed the judge's finding that Nielson was the prevailing party in the suit, since jurors also determined Nielson breached the agreement and ordered the consultant to pay Cook $19,521.

The justices upheld Peuler's decision, saying the determination of the prevailing party is best left to the trial court judge.

Cook also said Peuler erred in instructing jurors to decide if the contract was verbally modified because a clause in the agreement said it could only be altered in writing.

Although Utah law allows a written agreement to be verbally modified, even if it contains a provision to the contrary, the high court did not tackle the issue because Cook's attorneys did not offer a challenge to the instruction at trial.

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com