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."
*Accused Observer reporter Christine Biederman of pursuing a story on Baron & Budd solely because she "hates" former Observer columnist and Dallas City Councilwoman Laura Miller, a charge that is so absurd it doesn't merit comment. (Miller is married to Baron & Budd partner Steve Wolens. All of the Observer's information on unethical practices at Baron & Budd concerned a group of attorneys led by name partner Russell Budd. Wolens leads another group of attorneys that was never the focus of the Observer's investigation.)
At one point, Baron called me and vaguely apologized for making this idiotic accusation. But he has since repeated it. We believe he is trying to concoct an actual malice premise for a libel claim.
After Baron floated this bizarre theory, one former Baron & Budd attorney contacted by the Observer tried to bait reporter Thomas Korosec into a conversation about Miller.
*Continually tried to dupe the Observer into giving away the identity of confidential sources. On one occasion, Baron announced triumphantly that "you just gave away your source"--going on to name an attorney the Observer had never contacted.
*Launched pre-emptive personal attacks on former employees he suspected may be Observer sources. Smearing the credibility of potential critics is an old and desperate tactic, one obviously intended to dissuade the Observer from using these people as sources.
"We hate [former Baron & Budd attorney] Scott [Hendler], and Scott hates us," Baron said in one interview. "Scott was fired under very unfortunate circumstances and was almost sued by us [for] doing something very, very, very, very bad that is not gonna be discussed."
At the time, the Observer had not spoken to Hendler. When we did hook up with him later, he claimed that the "very, very, very, very bad" thing he'd done was leave Baron & Budd to join a rival asbestos-litigation firm.
Baron's explanation for all this frenetic activity is his horror at being accused of anything remotely unethical, and his belief that the Observer is, for mysterious reasons, "just on a tear to get [my] ass."
"We're just sitting here totally blown away about the accusations that are being made," Baron says. "Totally blown away. We think we do this better than anyone in the country, and we think we do it honestly and honorably.
"We have a wonderful reputation. I've been a lawyer for 27 years. I've never been sued for malpractice, and I've never had a grievance. And not one lawyer in my office has ever had a grievance sustained against him by a client."
Without a doubt, Fred Baron's achievements are impressive. For years, he has fought on behalf of the voiceless--working-class clients who had few other avenues for redress from injuries they received while working amidst toxic asbestos dust.
The companies he sues are often certifiably slimy. Baron was a pioneer in exposing their colossal deceit, which resulted in the agonizing, premature deaths of so many men and women.
Since those early days when Baron filed his first asbestos claim on behalf of some Tyler plant workers, Baron, his firm, and the asbestos-litigation industry have gone through enormous transformations. Asbestos has long been purged from the workplace, along with many of the companies that made it--bankrupted by crusading litigators such as Baron.
The first generation of asbestos workers has passed away, replaced by men who, in many cases, worked around the toxic substance but not with it. Consequently, their injuries are less grievous and perhaps exacerbated by other exposures--such as decades of cigarette smoking.
These days, Baron is a wealthy man. He shares the firm's letterhead with more than 50 other attorneys, and his method for handling asbestos cases has evolved into an extraordinarily efficient machine.
According to the former Baron & Budd paralegals with whom the Observer spoke, the heart of the operation is "product ID." These paralegals' part in assembling lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers was to prod the memories of elderly blue-collar clients, attempting to revive recollections of actual brand-name asbestos products they'd worked with some 20 or 30 years ago.
Getting a settlement in an asbestos lawsuit generally requires that the client be able to recite the names of specific products in a deposition.
The paralegals' work was not easy. Many of their clients could barely read. Others simply didn't recall such details from so long ago.
Yet Baron & Budd's high-pressure, results-oriented environment required that the paralegals coach their clients well enough to withstand the questioning of opposing lawyers in depositions and on the witness stand.
According to one former paralegal with whom the Observer spoke, Cathy Eads-Tone of Dallas, she and some of her colleagues often resorted to a decidedly unorthodox tactic: "implant[ing] false memories" of specific asbestos products whose manufacturers Baron & Budd wanted to sue.
"You were never told to tell people to lie or anything," Eads-Tone says. "But you were told, 'Look, we have this product ID. Make sure they stick to it.'...It was sort of like, 'Work with 'em. Work with 'em to identify this stuff, and don't leave until you get the ID.'"
Surprisingly, Baron admits his employees do implant memories while preparing their clients to testify at depositions. And he insists there's nothing deceitful about this, that they are only helping these workers remember the truth.
(Apparently, only Fred Baron and God could figure out a system to ensure that only true memories are implanted.)
Right now, Baron & Budd has nearly 10,000 individual asbestos cases pending, mostly in Texas courts. The firm's muscle has enabled it to get some of the highest settlements in the country for its clients.
And those workers--hard-luck guys in states such as Alabama and Texas, where few laws existed to protect their safety--are, for the most part, grateful to Fred Baron's machine.
As one Baron & Budd client, Roger Freeman of Tuscumbia, Alabama, told me about his $57,000 in settlements to date, of which he's netted roughly half, "Anytime you ain't got nothing, it'll help. You can say what you want to say. It helped me catch up with a few bills."
As his only outward symptom of asbestosis--the buildup of scar tissue in the lungs and surrounding tissue--Freeman points to his continual and severe shortness of breath. He is no longer able to work, and scrabbles together a tiny bit of income by pulling apart old appliances and selling the metal for scrap.
Sitting in his back yard, tinkering with an old TV, Freeman doesn't mention another condition that may also contribute to his breathing difficulties. He's 67 years old, and he's toting 300 pounds on his 5-foot, 11-inch frame.
He says that no one cared about him until Baron & Budd took up his cause and got him a dab of money to salve the pain.
"If it hadn't been for Baron & Budd, then it wouldn't have been nothin'," Freeman says. "I praise the bridge that got me across, even if it was a raggly bridge."
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Just how "raggly" is a matter in which federal authorities are now taking a keen interest.
It is all so bewildering for a man like Fred Baron, who clearly perceives himself as the little guy's friend.
Somewhere along the way, his whole self-concept has become very, very wrong, very distressingly wrong.
Additional reporting for this story was provided by Dallas Observer staff writers Christine Biederman and Thomas Korosec.