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Major Trial Lawyer Contributors:  A Decade of  Massive Campaign Spending

Over the last decade, most spending by personal injury trial lawyers has come from a few lawyers involved in mass torts.   Beginning in 2000, the top Texas trial lawyer campaign contributors were the five Texas trial lawyers who shared the $3.3 billion fee awarded in the 1998 settlement between tobacco companies and the State of Texas.

Then Attorney General Dan Morales selected Beaumont attorneys Walter Umphrey and Wayne Reaud, Houston attorneys John Eddie Williams and the late John O’Quinn, and Dangerfield attorney Harold Nix to handle the lawsuit, which was virtually identical to similar lawsuits in a number of other states.  Morales was later convicted for felonious conduct related to the tobacco settlement.

The “Tobacco Five” immediately began pouring millions of dollars into Texas political campaigns to try to stop the tort reform movement.  O’Quinn, who made the largest single campaign contribution in Texas history, $2.2 million to failed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell, died in 2009, but the remaining “Tobacco Five” lawyers are still major contributors to groups that funnel trial lawyer contributions to legislative candidates.  Williams contributed $1,428,773 in 2010 and Nix (Nix Patterson Roach) contributed $908,880 . (For TLR’s 2002 report on the “Tobacco Five” see “Hiding Their Influence” under special reports at www.tortreform.com)

In 2004, Fred Baron, who is credited with inventing the asbestos mass tort case, joined the “Tobacco 5″ in creating a number of political action committees with names that served to mask direct trial lawyer contributions to candidates.  Baron, who died in 2008, established the Texas Democratic Trust in 2005 and announced his goal to revitalize the Democratic Party and take the State back from conservatives and tort reform advocates.  Baron’s target was to regain a number of statewide offices and seats on the Texas Supreme Court and capture a majority in the Texas Legislature before the 2010 redistricting process.

Baron spent an estimated $15 million on the Democratic Trust, which has been the primary funder for the Texas Democratic Party for the past five years.  The Democratic Trust also funded the Texas Progress Council, which does opposition research, and the Texas Values in Action Coalition, which pushes trial lawyer backed candidates in North Texas.  The Democratic Trust had provided most of the funding for the House Democratic Campaign Committee until this year, when Steve Mostyn provided about sixty percent of the funding for that group.

Baron’s widow, Lisa Blue, who is also a personal injury trial lawyer and was a partner in her late husband’s firm, contributed $1,556,586 to the Democratic Trust this election cycle, making her the second largest Democratic contributor in Texas.  Following the election, Baron’s Washington-based political operative, Matt Angle, announced that the Democratic Trust would shut down after the 2010 election, as Baron had planned. Despite spending millions, the Texas Democratic Trust did not achieve its goal.  They failed to elect even one statewide officeholder or Supreme Court justice and now hold 12 fewer seats in the State Legislature than when they started.

Mostyn, the most prolific hurricane lawyer in Texas and the 2010 incoming president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, contributed $9,858,313 in 2010, given mostly to political action committees, but also to individual candidates.  Mostyn created the Back to Basics PAC, a political attack machine, which he used to target Governor Perry and launch vicious personal attacks against candidates who support lawsuit reform. Mostyn also almost single-handedly funded the House Democratic Campaign Committee and was the largest contributor to Texans for Insurance Reform, another trial lawyer political action committee with a name that hides from the public the fact that 99% of its contributions came from personal injury trial lawyers.

Mostyn also supported other anti-lawsuit reform candidates and funded those candidates through several newly created political action committees, including Texans for Public Education, the Texas Forward Committee, Turn Texas Blue and the Valley Political Action Committee.

Mostyn, who has been disciplined by the State Bar Association for settling a case without his client’s consent (see www.thetruthaboutSteveMostyn.com), was the lead attorney in the recent $189 million Texas Windstorm Insurance Association settlement of Hurricane Ike claims, which reportedly netted about $75 million in attorneys’ fees.  Mostyn has gone to court to keep the details of the settlement secret.

Personal injury trial lawyers also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to local judges in many Texas counties.  In 2010, Mostyn contributed $923,942 to a political action group he created, the Coalition of Harris County Democratic Elected Officials, which not only provided campaign funds to dozens of local judges, but also bankrolled “Get Out the Vote” activities in Harris County (Houston).  Republican judicial candidates nevertheless swept the judicial elections in Harris County.

In San Antonio, personal injury trial attorney Mikal Watts, who once bragged that his campaign contributions had gained him influence over Nueces County judges and the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi (see Houston Chronicle, Sept 5, 2007), combined with other local personal injury trial lawyers to fund “Get Out the Vote” operations in Bexar County using his own political action committee, inocuously named “Vote Texas.”

Despite their defeat at the polls this year, the contribution history of personal injury trial lawyers for more than a decade makes it clear they will continue their massive spending in Texas politics.  These trial lawyers clearly believe if they are successful in reversing a single tort reform, they would be on their way to undermining the Texas protections against lawsuit abuse – in medical liability, asbestos-silica, workers compensation, class actions, venue and other areas of the law. These trial lawyers know that if they can change the laws so that even one jackpot judgment or settlement is achieved, their campaign spending will pay off.