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.

Curiously, neither the investigation by the South Carolina attorney general nor the probe by the State Bar of Texas was launched until about 18 months after the crash, after Betty Edward told her story to South Carolina authorities and to Max Boot, the 27-year-old deputy features editor of the Wall Street Journal's rabidly right-wing editorial page. A writer with a pronounced ideological bent, Boot has made a cottage industry out of pillorying O'Quinn as one of the nation's "most notorious legal buccaneers." Over the past year, Boot has devoted seven columns to O'Quinn alone -- including one in January 1996 in which he first recounted Betty Edward's tale.

Edward is said to have tape recordings, notes and receipts to back her allegations of soliciting clients for O'Quinn. She claims that before she went public with her story, O'Quinn tried to pay her off to keep her quiet. O'Quinn, in turn, claims Edward actually tried to extort money from him.

John McIntosh, an assistant attorney general in South Carolina, says Edward has been granted immunity from prosecution in the ongoing criminal investigation, which is likely to culminate in a presentation by investigators to a grand jury late in February. McIntosh says there may be two sets of indictments coming out of the probe -- indicating that prosecutors hope to obtain indictments, then cut a deal with those defendants to provide evidence for other indictments.

O'Quinn has protested that he's an "innocent man being smeared," and behind the multipronged offensive by Boot, the State Bar of Texas and the state of South Carolina he sees the dark hand of such corporations as Philip Morris and Dow Chemical. As the lead counsel nationally on breast implant suits, O'Quinn is the only lawyer to persuade a jury to find against Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of silicone used in implants and one of the parent companies of Dow Corning, a major breast implant manufacturer that claims it was forced into bankruptcy by the litigation. He's also on the team of plaintiffs' lawyers formed by Texas Attorney General Dan Morales to recover millions in cigarette-related health costs from the tobacco industry.

"Boot," says O'Quinn, "is a huckster for Dow and other companies. His editorials are written like a PR company would write ads.

"I win big. My average jury verdict in a breast implant case -- I've tried five of them -- is $15 million. They hate me. They cannot beat me in the courtroom, so they try outside of the courtroom. They try to beat me in the court of public opinion."

Boot declined to respond to O'Quinn, saying his articles speak for themselves.

Knowledgeable sources say Edward was directed to Boot and to South Carolina authorities by a shadowy figure named Bob Loving, a private investigator who worked for Benton Musslewhite and was seen at O'Quinn's office around the same time the allegations of improper solicitations arose against the lawyers in the late eighties.

"[Loving] and Betty Edward cooked up this allegation in South Carolina," contends O'Quinn, who professes not to know why Loving would be pursuing a vendetta against him.

Loving, who was last known to be living in the Houston area, could not be located for comment.

In defending O'Quinn against the State Bar allegations, McDade has enlisted the help of private detective Clyde Wilson, who, ironically, worked as an investigator for the State Bar and its special prosecutor, Houston lawyer Tom Alexander, when it first pursued case-running allegations against O'Quinn in the eighties.

Wilson has been collecting affidavits in support of O'Quinn, one of which was given by lawyer Wayne Walker, who along with Benton Musslewhite is accused in a State Bar solicitation sting growing out of the 1996 crash of a ValuJet flight in Florida. Walker claims Loving asked him for help in extorting money from O'Quinn, and that Loving even mentioned wanting to kill O'Quinn.

While O'Quinn believes Edward and Loving are responsible for his troubles, it may be longtime associate Benton Musslewhite who poses the most serious threat to him.

A charming and somewhat roguish eccentric, the white-haired, 64-year-old Musslewhite dabbles in promoting one-worldism through his One World Now Foundation -- a cause that O'Quinn, to Musslewhite's chagrin, has never adopted. He is also a man with serious financial troubles, judging by the bankruptcy petition he filed last October listing debts of more than $500,000 to the IRS, $90,000 to American Express, $40,000 to the Allen Park Inn and about $5,000 each to Neiman-Marcus and Bergdorf-Goodman -- not to mention $3.3 million owed to O'Quinn.

As one colleague jokes, Musslewhite has been accused of running cases so many times that he should endorse Nikes. He has repeatedly had his law license suspended for case running -- in the same late eighties State Bar action that resulted in a reprimand of O'Quinn, Musslewhite accepted a 90-day suspension of his law license and was placed on three years probation for soliciting cases. While on probation, he was suspended from practicing law for three years for contacting victims of a North Sea rig disaster in 1988.

In addition to the accusations that he and Walker improperly solicited cases after last year's ValuJet crash, Musslewhite, along with his attorney son, is accused of solicitation in the State Bar grievance arising from the North Carolina crash.

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