The state’s top lawyer, sworn to uphold the law and protect taxpayers’ interests, is bypassing the need for legislative approval and oversight in his zeal to use a private contingency lawyer to sue the tobacco industry.
On top of that, Attorney General Dan Morales is violating his own personnel policies regarding ethics simply so that he can use — the King of Torts to spearhead his tobacco lawsuit.
It is true that Houston’s Mr. John O’Quinn is known as a tough, smart trial lawyer who has many multimillion dollar verdicts under his belt. If anyone could win a lawsuit as ill conceived and legally bankrupt as that brought by Morales, it could only be the “win at any cost” O’Quinn. That alone, though, does not qualify him for this position.
To the contrary, O’Quinn is unqualified for such a position of what should be unselfish public trust.
In the names of the taxpayers you and me Morales and O’Quinn have teamed up to sue the tobacco companies. They claim that the industry should pay the state back for money it spent providing benefits to residents who became ill “because of” smoking. By hiring O’Quinn to prosecute the state’s case, Morales has invested in him the power of the state.
To get such a job, one would have to submit an application and go through an ethical review. Special ethical rules apply to those who have the power of the state behind them. For instance, they are supposed to temper their advocacy of their client in a pursuit of “justice”.
If such an application had been filled out, here are just some of the questions that O’Quinn would have had to have answered:
“Have you ever been disciplined by any segment of the bar, including, but not limited to, any local, district or State grievance authority?”
“Are any charges now pending against you, either in court or before a grievance committee, or has any such charge been threatened?”
According to the Human Resources Department of the Attorney General’s Office, before the Attorney General can make a job offer based on an application, it needs to examine answers to those questions and get the State Bar’s approval. Mr. O’Quinn’s answers to the questions would have caused a serious problem. For example, his file would show:
O’Quinn is fighting a Texas State Disciplinary Proceeding for “ambulance chasing.”O’Quinn is fighting a South Carolina Disciplinary Proceeding for the same thing. In South Carolina, he could face three years in jail.
O’Quinn is fighting the IRS over an alleged abuse of his tax free scholarship because he gave the scholarship to his friend’s kids.
O’Quinn, after a three year investigation, was put on probation and fined by the State Bar of Texas for the same unethical conduct.
O’Quinn was kicked out of the American Board of Trial Advocates, the premier national trial law organization, for unethical conduct.
O’Quinn was publicly rebuked by the Army for “ambulance chasing” families of dead servicemen after a plane crash in Newfoundland, Canada, in the mid 1980’s.
The job of special counsel calls for a person of integrity with a strong sense of justice and fair play. O’Quinn does not qualify even for the first tier position. Although an able advocate, his track record is one of disrespect for the bar and for flaunting unlawfulness. He could not, and should not, be hired to represent you and me.
There’s another important angle to all this. Plaintiff’s lawyers, like O’Quinn, really represent their own interests in a case because they are paid by a contingent fee, a percentage of their recovery. In this suit, O’Quinn stands to earn 22 percent of any eventual settlement or award. This is on top of whatever the state’s taxpayers already pay to support the Office of Attorney General, which is supposed to handle such suits.
John O’Quinn is not qualified, according to the state’s own standards, to be a special counsel. Dan Morales’ choice of lawyers, perhaps fittingly, is as ill conceived as the tobacco lawsuit itself.
Michael D. Weiss is Research Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit research foundation located in San Antonio, Texas, where he has written extensively on these issues.