What Did He Do To Deserve This?

Attorney John O'quinn says his big-business enemies are out to do him in. But the real source of his troubles may be closer to home.

The glut of lawyers, stingier jury verdicts, the tort reform movement and the State Bar's ineffectuality in enforcing its rules have contributed to the spread of case running. And not unlike most drivers who run red lights or break the speed limit, most lawyers who run cases go unpunished.

In the late eighties, the State Bar accused O'Quinn of using runners to sign up dozens of clients, an action that concluded with what critics of the Bar claim amounted to a slap on the wrist for O'Quinn: He agreed to be publicly reprimanded, placed on two years probation, fined $38,000 and to perform 100 hours of community service.

Today, O'Quinn says he admitted to accepting cases that he knew others had wrongly solicited, but that he did not improperly solicit cases himself. And he sees a distinction between the two actions -- even though he says he did neither following the 1994 USAir disaster in North Carolina.

"I am a damn good trial lawyer," he says. "If you had a serious legal problem, you would want me to represent you. If somebody comes to me to represent them in a serious legal problem and I represent them and do them a great job -- which I am going to do -- the system worked. The person got a great lawyer. The person got justice. Are they better off to stay with some shopping center lawyer who is not going to give them a good result? No."

O'Quinn has aggressively contested the latest grievance by filing a lawsuit against the State Bar, arguing that it violated its own rules by forming a panel to investigate him, leaking confidential information about that investigation to the media and subpoenaing witnesses without informing him.

"I don't know how much of a charmed life John can continue to lead," says Pat Maloney Sr., a noted San Antonio lawyer who nominated O'Quinn for induction into the Inner Circle of Advocates, an elite organization from which O'Quinn resigned last year after the South Carolina allegations were first raised. But O'Quinn, adds Maloney, "certainly won't lack for an abundance of due process."

Indeed, O'Quinn is being defended by some pricey legal talent in his current battle with the State Bar, just as he was in the late eighties, when seven big-name attorneys he dubbed "The Magnificent Seven" rode to his defense. This time, O'Quinn's team includes Tom McDade and Gerald Treece of Houston and Luke Soules of San Antonio. The special blue-ribbon panel appointed by the State Bar to investigate and prosecute O'Quinn -- which Laminack derides as the "Star Chamber" -- is also composed of respected lawyers, including former Harris County assistant prosecutors Rusty Hardin and Cathy Herasimchuk.

The legal community in Texas is primed for a bloodletting. In some quarters, it is believed that the State Bar feels pressured to "get" O'Quinn after letting him get off with a relatively mild punishment in 1989; other conjecture holds that Bar leaders were embarrassed that the latest allegations against O'Quinn and his associates were developed elsewhere -- in South Carolina and on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal -- and they feel they have no choice but to pursue them.

USAir Flight 1016, en route from Columbia, South Carolina, to Charlotte, North Carolina, crashed on July 2, 1994, while trying to land in a violent thunderstorm at the Charlotte airport. Thirty-seven of the 57 people onboard were killed.

Rescuers were still pulling bodies from the wreckage when attorneys from across the country began touting their expertise in aviation litigation to reporters. Newspaper accounts of attorneys scrambling for clients in South Carolina, where most of the victims had lived, refer to lawyers from Chicago, Cleveland, Washington and Atlanta mailing promotional brochures to victims' families and otherwise seeking publicity.

Among the people who showed up in South Carolina after the crash were O'Quinn minion Carl Shaw; Charles Musslewhite, another lawyer whose father, Benton Musslewhite, has long been associated with O'Quinn; and Betty Edward, one of the plaintiffs represented by Benton Musslewhite in a lawsuit against Liberty Waste Company, operator of a toxic-waste dump in east Harris County.

In its grievance, the State Bar alleges that Benton Musslewhite worked with Edward, Shaw, Charles Musslewhite and others, who were deployed to a South Carolina hotel to systematically recruit survivors and victims' families as O'Quinn clients. They allegedly conducted early morning meetings in which they would divvy up assignments for contacting potential clients. Shaw is accused of offering to pay fees in a child custody case to induce one family member to sign on with O'Quinn -- an allegation Shaw denies. (O'Quinn says that accusation will turn out to be a false, born of a feud between an O'Quinn client, grandparents of a child whose parents both died in the crash and the child's other grandparents, who hired a different lawyer.)

O'Quinn came to represent four clients from the crash, and he has obtained affidavits or statements from all of them that they were not improperly solicited. The first client he signed up was Floyd Doucette, who, oddly enough, is another of the plaintiffs represented by Benton Musslewhite in the Liberty Waste lawsuit. Doucette's son Dorian was one of several young military men heading home for the July Fourth holiday on the USAir flight and was badly burned in the crash. Under State Bar rules, it would not have been improper for Musslewhite to contact an existing client about the crash.

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