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.

According to O'Quinn partner Laminack, Musslewhite's long relationship with O'Quinn was cemented in the mid-eighties when Musslewhite recruited O'Quinn to help pursue the mass claims of veterans injured by the Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam.

O'Quinn says Musslewhite appealed to his softer side -- that he's always thought of Musslewhite as sort of an errant old-er brother.

Others in the legal profession suggest that O'Quinn has kept Musslewhite around because he was making money for O'Quinn -- even though Musslewhite also was deeply in debt to O'Quinn.

To Musslewhite, O'Quinn is a man who plays by his own rules.
"It's hard to tell him -- he just won't listen to you when you tell him there might be a different set of rules," says Musslewhite. "He's got this thing going where he uses somebody else to pay or do things, and he thinks that protects him. It doesn't."

That's a judgment seconded by Gary Riebschlager, a former partner in O'Quinn's firm who is now suing O'Quinn for substantial fees he claims he's owed.

"He feels he's earned his place in legal land and can do things and get away with it," says Riebschlager "He's very arrogant, very self-confident and very self-righteous about it. It's like -- how dare you question him?"

Ominously for O'Quinn, Musslewhite contends he took the fall for O'Quinn in the late eighties but vows he won't do it again.

"I'm not going to be the scapegoat to John O'Quinn's sacred cow this time," says Musslewhite. "We sink or swim together this time."

Musslewhite readily admits that he helped pursue cases for O'Quinn in South Carolina, but he is adamant that there was nothing wrong with what he did. What Musslewhite says he did is use funds supplied by O'Quinn to hire Edward and others to go to South Carolina and contact victims' families to see if they had received O'Quinn's mailings and had any questions about them. Musslewhite believes that is permissible contact with a potential client; the State Bar of Texas does not.

The way Musslewhite views himself, he's just taking full advantage of his First Amendment rights in trying to get the best legal help to people in need. The U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows lawyers to advertise, Musslewhite argues, also allows them to contact potential clients when following up on promotional mailings.

O'Quinn acknowledges that he gave Musslewhite $100,000, as alleged in the State Bar grievance, but says it was a personal loan to Musslewhite and his wife. Musslewhite confirms that O'Quinn did indeed loan him that sum, but he says O'Quinn also separately provided him thousands of dollars to bankroll the South Carolina venture. O'Quinn, he says, promised Edward that he would pay her $1,000 a day and other compensation, but reneged on that promise.

O'Quinn, for his part, says that any broken promises originated with Musslewhite.

"When Benton owes somebody money and can't pay it, he tells them, 'I could pay you if John O'Quinn would give me the money,' " O'Quinn says. "They start thinking John O'Quinn is the one that owes them the money."

O'Quinn says he has, for all intents and purposes, ended his association with Musslewhite.

"[His] bankruptcy is our financial divorce," says O'Quinn, who has agreed to pay more than $1 million to bail out Musslewhite with his creditors. In return, O'Quinn will keep the rights to any future fees generated by cases Musslewhite brought to him.

Each man says the other owes him more than their deal provides -- either from past debt or anticipated future fees -- but each is nonetheless willing to proceed with the arrangement.

"If John had paid all his bills, this would not have happened," Musslewhite says of the South Carolina and Texas investigations. "John cannot help it: He has a psychological obsession about money. It comes from being not well-to-do. He's a self-made man, and he suspects that the world is out to screw him."

Ellen Cokinos is executive director of the Children's Assessment Center, a program to help abused children, and one day last spring she went to O'Quinn's office to solicit a major donation from the lawyer. She was summoned back ten days later and informed by O'Quinn that he'd be making a $1.5 million contribution.

It was the largest gift ever to the Children's Assessment Center, and it provided the seed money Cokinos needed to raise the rest of the $10 million for construction of a new building in Rice Village. When the building opens later this year, it will be named after John O'Quinn.

As you might expect, Cokinos is an O'Quinn fan.
"This guy, there is something going on inside him that makes him understand victims and kids, that makes him angry if someone or some kid is being victimized," Cokinos says.

"I told him about how kids were hurting. He got it. He's a guy from the other side of the tracks. His story is that he was really the sort of kid who is brilliant but doesn't come from the major blue-blood money of Houston, but he's in that league now. It's new to him, so he doesn't do the conventional thing."

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