Lame duck Attorney General Dan Morales has often stood alone. As a conservative Democratic legislator, he crossed ways with the Democratic leadership in Austin. As attorney general, he went against the wishes of many Hispanic activists by not challenging a court decision that overturned the UT law school's affirmative action policy.
But in his battle over fat fees from tobacco litigation, Morales may be really, really alone, without even his own staff at his side. His longtime press aide Ron Dusek and one of Morales' top assistants, Harry Potter, seem more than ready to bail out on him.
The ship is sinking. Squeak, squeak, squeak.
Morales has received considerable flak over the deal he struck with his bud, Houston lawyer Marc Murr, the invisible man in the state's case against the tobacco companies. When the settlement was reached last winter, most people--even lawyers involved in the deal--learned for the first time that Morales had used Murr as a kitchen cabinet advisor on the case. He relied on Murr, he claimed, even though he had five other high-powered plaintiff firms in the litigation. The five firms had a well-publicized contract to receive 15 percent of the settlement. (They ultimately were awarded $3.3 billion.)
When news of Murr's contract first broke, the story from the attorney general's office was that Murr would receive only "reasonable fees" as reflected in a contract that Morales had disclosed in response to open-records requests.
Well, one man's reasonable fee is another's truckload of dough. A truckload is just what Mystery Man Murr might get thanks to another contract that somehow, uh, slipped Morales' mind. As The Dallas Morning News reported, Morales had signed a prior contract with his pal that called for Murr to get 3 percent of the tobacco booty.
If you think that stinks, you're not alone. Attorney General-elect John Cornyn has promised to investigate how Murr could receive as much as $500 million. At the end of the week, a special arbitration panel handed Murr his hat, so to speak, or a measly $1 million. But Morales' friend can now go to the state with the previously concealed contract for 3 percent and ask for the rest.
Why didn't the contract between Murr and Morales surface before, given that the Dallas Observer and a half-dozen news organizations asked for all written deals between the AG and the outside lawyers on the tobacco litigation? Initially, Morales' office said the contract had been "overlooked."
Buzz, who has been known to scour under the couch cushions for cigarette money, A) doesn't believe anyone could "overlook" that much money, and B) would gladly clean Morales' couch for free.
Apparently, even Morales' aides had a tough time keeping a straight face. They made it clear that they don't know what's up and that Morales can try to pitch that "overlooked" story on his own.
"We are told what to say and when to say it. All we can do is assume we are speaking the truth," says Dusek, who apparently spends much of his time in Austin cloistered in a box. "Why don't you find out what is going on? I want to read it."
We went to the one man--outside of Morales and Murr--who should know what's going on: Harry Potter, the state's top tobacco attorney who was responsible for managing outside lawyers. He said through Dusek that "he had no idea or knowledge that the contract existed."
That leaves Morales to answer the puzzling question of why he signed a contract with a close friend for roughly $500 million without any staff oversight.
Morales didn't return our calls for this story. Of course, unlike the new Republican attorney general, we don't have the power to subpoena him.
If we wore a hat, we'd be taking it off now to Dallas City Council member Don Hicks, a man whose cynical sense of humor surpasses even our own.
Hicks gets a special Buzz salute (it involves placing the thumb of our right hand on our nose and waving the other four fingers) for his appointment to the new city task force on ethics. The 15-member panel will review the city's ethics code and recommend changes. It was created at the insistence of city council member and former Observer columnist Laura Miller.
So whom did Hicks pick as his ethical centurion? (Drum roll) That paragon of virtue, former city council member Chris Luna.
To appreciate the joke, you need either a long memory or easy access to the Observer's archives. (They're on the Web.) Luna was excoriated in several Miller columns, including one with the kindly headline "Chris Luna's deceitful public-service career finally hits bottom."
It went downhill from there.
Luna was the man who fed confidential city information to the theater company Cinemark over the city's decision to kill plans for a movie theater at Forest Lane and Inwood. Cinemark sued. They collected $5 million of your money in 1996. There were also questions about whether Luna lived in the district he represented, about his campaign contributions from nudie bars, and about his sleazy campaign tactics. In gentler moments, his fellow council members at the time called him a liar.
Now, he's going to help revise the city's code of ethics, thanks to Don Hicks, which says a lot about how deeply Hicks cares about ethical government. We suppose Paul Fielding, being in jail and all, was unavailable.
--Compiled from staff reports by Patrick Williams
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