By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Fred Baron is one of the good guys. Or so he says, loudly, repeatedly, as though it were an incantation to make the questions go away.
The legendary plaintiffs' attorney marshals his defense with high drama: hushed apologies, and a grand array of verbal feints and bobs.
It all adds up to an incredible performance. The false sincerity and verbiage, at least, must have played brilliantly in the courtroom back when Baron tried dozens of asbestos cases himself.
But when he fails to make disciples of Dallas Observer reporters through an assault of self-praise, Baron simply shifts tactics.
Pressed with allegations that his law firm, Baron & Budd, coaches witnesses to lie in its thousands of lawsuits against manufacturers of asbestos products, Baron exclaims angrily that "you've got these facts very, very wrong, very distressingly wrong."
He then bullies the Observer's every effort to investigate his firm's practices, even taking the newspaper to court to discover sources, in a pattern of intimidation and paranoia such as the Observer has never experienced before.
Today, Baron resembles a man besieged, and his huffing suggests he can't come to terms with how he and his cause have so drastically changed.
What began as heroism--a band of tenacious lawyers taking on asbestos companies that purposely hid the dangers of their products from hundreds of thousands of American workers--has become an assembly line. Baron presides over a factory that former employees claim turns out asbestos lawsuits using a variety of truth-stretching tactics.
During a four-month investigation, the Observer talked to former Baron & Budd workers who said the law firm manufactures testimony and implants memories of specific asbestos products in the minds of clients who, in many instances, show few symptoms of having been harmed by the deadly fibers.
The inner workings of Baron's asbestos lawsuit mill are detailed in this week's special report, "Toxic justice," which begins on page 18.
What the Observer uncovered somehow managed to elude the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, which has concluded a decidedly low-energy grand jury investigation into the circumstances surrounding a Baron & Budd witness-coaching memo that last fall was inadvertently leaked to opposing attorneys.
The U.S. Attorney's Office recently took over the case and has just begun to subpoena witnesses.
The Observer's investigation goes far beyond that. We've interviewed dozens of people--Baron & Budd clients, current and former employees, defense attorneys, ethical experts, and U.S. and Dallas County prosecutors. At the heart of our investigation is one discouraged lawyer from Baron & Budd, as well as the plainspoken recollections of some former paralegals who explained to us what they did to keep Baron's asbestos-litigation machine running. Their accounts are bolstered by internal Baron & Budd documents obtained by the Observer.
Baron did just about everything he could to interfere with the Observer's reporting and badger its sources, despite his protestations that Baron & Budd is the cleanest, most ethical shop in the country, and that he has nothing to hide.
During the last few months, Baron has:
*Sent a letter demanding that the Observer immediately stop speaking to former Baron & Budd employees--despite these individuals' rights to free speech--and threatening legal action if we didn't. The ham-handed missive, signed by attorney Robert M. Greenberg and reprinted above, displays a stunning ignorance of the First Amendment.
Greenberg makes his demand under the guise of protecting Baron & Budd's attorney-client privilege. The scent of intimidation wafts from his letter.
*Interviewed every one of the Baron & Budd clients Observer reporters had contacted.
Baron accused us of making "significant disparaging comments" about the firm during our conversations with these workers and threatened to sue us for doing so.
*Based on which clients the Observer interviewed, Baron inferred that we had somehow gotten our hands on a sealed court document listing the names of Baron & Budd clients who may have been improperly coached for their depositions. (He was right; we did have the document, though we obtained it through legal means.)
Vowing that "someone's going to jail," Baron then subpoenaed Observer reporter Christine Biederman to appear at a deposition to answer questions about her confidential sources. The Observer fought the subpoena; during a court hearing in Austin, Baron's lawyer tried to force Biederman to identify her sources from the witness stand, which she refused to do.
The Observer's motion to quash the subpoena is still pending.
*Faxed letters to several lawyers, demanding they sign affidavits swearing they never gave the Observer the sealed court record.
Amazingly, a number of lawyers meekly signed the affidavit and sent it back.
*Telephoned virtually every attorney who's ever worked for Baron & Budd and questioned them at length about whether they'd talked to the Observer.
*Questioned other former employees who'd spoken to us or been contacted by us. "It's getting kind of crazy here," Baron complained at one point, "because we are spending just a huge block of time every time you people call somebody and take an interview...We then send somebody out and interview them. And you guys have been busy bees.
"It's hard to fight this brush fire, because we don't know what you've got and where you're going," he added. "There's a lot of misinformation floating around."