By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As crusaders against special-interest money in the state's elected judiciary, the left-leaning Texans for Public Justice is usually concerned about wealthy defense firms and their big-business clients. "They're the ones who can afford to seek influence," says Chris Feldman, staff attorney for the Austin-based group.
So he was a little surprised to learn last month that a drive by lawyers to hire and pay a lobbyist for appeals court judges in Dallas and Houston was initiated by a trial lawyer, state Rep. Wolens, from Baron & Budd.
Linda Thomas, chief justice for the 5th District Court of Appeals in Dallas, says she has been frustrated with inadequate funding for her court. When she raised the issue with Wolens, he came up with the idea of passing the hat to law firms in Dallas and Houston to hire someone to push her cause in the Legislature. Thomas says she didn't consider the favor unethical.
Wolens says his intent was to help the Dallas court overcome a funding disparity, just as he would help other local institutions that receive state money. "I know what a bear it is getting this done," he says. He says he had no intent to cultivate favor with the court, which he personally has appeared before only once.
"I don't care who it is," Feldman says. "It's unethical when you raise money for the courts. You have firms that max out [under the state's $5,000 limit on judicial campaign contributions], so they look for other ways to curry favor. It sure gives an appearance of impropriety."
In Dallas, several lawyers say, Baron & Budd often seems to lend a hand in ways that are legal but extraordinary.
In 1995, Baron's wife, Lisa Blue, one of the firm's top courtroom lawyers, led a drive to buy every civil judge in the county a new personal computer. Her firm provided much of the $200,000 needed for the 39 machines, according to one glowing report of the donation. "I feel a personal obligation to do this because of my asbestos cases," Blue told The Dallas Morning News. "I know I've created work for them."
As it turns out, two of the judges who received computers made critical rulings in the firm's favor in the memo disputes.
Beyond that, in October 1997, Justice Thomas overturned Judge Marshall's ruling to halt all local Baron & Budd's asbestos cases. Her emergency stay within hours after his ruling stunned opponents and represented a major win for the firm.
Interestingly, the next step in Baron & Budd's current dispute with G-1 over its investigators would be in Justice Thomas' court.
"They're richer than the Catholic Church," Pfifer says of the firm. "They're very well-wired."
In his labors at Baron & Budd, paralegal Treuter says he would at times be given rush jobs that took him out of his daily, witness-finding duties.
As the firm reached mass settlements with manufacturers, it needed to produce sworn affidavits from every client who had sued, he recalls. The mostly retired workers had to swear they had been exposed, 30, 40 or 50 years ago, to specific products the company made. Industry officials say they require the statements to validate claims and present them to insurers.
"At one point they needed to catch up on 800 of them," says Treuter, and any spare person in his department, which numbered about 20, would be put on the job.
Treuter says some clients had already identified the products in prior talks with the firm, and sometimes they had not.
Frequently, he says, he was the first person to mention the products, and clients who didn't remember them were hesitant and worried about signing. "They'd ask, 'Do I have to go court? Do I have to come to Dallas?'"
Treuter says he would assure them all they had to do was sign the document, have it notarized, send it in, and money would be coming their way.
"It was like telephone marketing...a marketing approach," Treuter says. But it didn't take much savvy to close the sale. Everyone would sign, he says. "When you are offering someone the ability to get money in their pocket when they're not expecting money for any particular reason, it's not all that difficult."