Letters

Wallet Unzipped
Your January 23 story on John O'Quinn ["O'Quinn Unzipped," by Mary Flood] brought to mind a phone call I got from O'Quinn's secretary in 1989. I'd never met the man, but I certainly had heard of him. We met for lunch, where we talked about our work, growing up and maybe playing some basketball. Then O'Quinn handed me a $5,000 check. At the time I ran Texans United, a nonprofit environmental organization doing battle with petrochemical companies. He said we were doing the Lord's work and he wanted to help out. It was an unexpected and much needed contribution.

Once a year, for three or four years after that, O'Quinn hosted a fundraiser and contributed to our work helping communities poisoned by corporate polluters. Not once did he ever suggest or hint that we send him clients -- even though we were in a position to do so. Later, O'Quinn turned down a multimillion-dollar fee from a would-be client who wanted to build a controversial hazardous waste facility near Lake Houston. I know because I saw a copy of the contract.

I don't run in John's circles and haven't spoken to him for more than a year. What little I know says he may be a complicated person -- but a greedy case-running lawyer he's not. Clearly, some things are more important to him than money. O'Quinn wins for victims against powerful corporations and the best defense firms they can buy. That's the one significant thing that sets him apart from the lawyers who are not targeted for investigation, but should be.

Rick Abraham
Houston

Protection Racket
Your article on John O'Quinn provides a new opportunity to examine whether and to what extent attorneys should be permitted to seek out potential customers.

Newspaper people, who are rightly concerned about protecting freedoms of speech and press, regularly fail to notice that seeking business is itself a form of communication.

The acceptability of different forms of solicitation reflects the fact that the powerful make the rules. When a lawyer seeks out a person who is likely to need counsel due to a recent injury (often on the job), that is labeled "ambulance chasing." How often do you think the organized bar has been concerned about solicitation of business during a round of golf at an expensive private country club or an expense-account lunch at a fancy restaurant?

The organized bar, including the State Bar of Texas and the American Bar Association (I am a member of both organizations), has long sought to stifle price competition within the bar (through minimum fee schedules) and the seeking of business. It took decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, over the vigorous opposition of the bar, to permit any advertising or solicitation for clients. The ads for lawyers that appear in the Press every week would have been illegal under bar rules only a few years ago.

A related way in which the law limits competition is by requiring that simple tasks related to legal matters be performed only by lawyers. Assistance with uncontested divorces, preparation of wills and the purchase of a home are everyday examples. Recently, the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston refused to permit an officer of a corporation to deliver a cash deposit [to cover] costs with the court. In plain English, the individual could not give money to the court, either on his own behalf or for the corporation. According to the court, both the individual and the organization had to pay a lawyer to perform this ministerial task. Imagine if you were not permitted to deposit money in your bank account, but had to hire a lawyer or banker to do so on your behalf.

Pious observations by professions about protecting the public disguise the fact that usually the profession, rather than the public, is the primary beneficiary of this "protection."

Stephen K. Huber
Houston

Benton Musslewhite's Grievance
Regarding the article about John O'Quinn: While I understand that it involves so-called "public figures," thus giving the writer more liberties with the facts (and while I do appreciate the diligence that Mary Flood employed in writing the story), I am compelled to point out three glaring mistakes that create unjustified, adverse impressions about me:

1. The article reports that "Bob Loving [was] a private investigator who worked for Benton Musslewhite ...." This is not a correct statement. Bob Loving did not back then, and does not now, work for me.

2. The article reports that I "was suspended from practicing law for three years for contacting victims of a North rig disaster in 1988." Again, this statement is absolutely incorrect. I was not accused of contacting any of the victims or their families in the Piper Alpha disaster. In fact, Steve Smoot, who as the assistant general counsel of the State Bar testified at the revocation proceedings, admitted that after spending several days in Scotland investigating the matter, he could not find a single victim or family member who had been contacted by me. The essence of the charges with regard to the Piper Alpha disaster were that we (I and the team of lawyers with whom I worked) had issued a press release and held a press conference that somehow violated the "advertising rules" of the State Bar.

I had proved conclusively that the communications complained of were conditioned upon the qualification that our team of lawyers would not accept any cases directly from victims or their family members and would discuss potential employment only with the personal solicitors or lawyers of the victims or family members. The law then, and the law now, has established that such communications are protected by the First Amendment. I could never get the trial judge, or the Texas appellate courts, to address the First Amendment issue. That is why, as explained to Ms. Flood, I have always been so bitter about the great travesty of justice that occurred when I was suspended in 1989 for unconstitutional reasons.

Most important, and the main reason I am particularly disturbed by the inaccurate statement quoted above, is that I have never been accused by the State Bar, by an individual or by anyone -- client or otherwise -- of uninvited, in-person solicitation of a potential client. The statement contained in this article states precisely otherwise and is therefore inaccurate in a very damaging way.

3. The third inaccuracy is the statement that I have "repeatedly had [my] law license suspended for case running."

In 1987 I settled with the State Bar for a 90-day suspension that was part of a three-year probationary period. Before the 90-day period of actual suspension took place, the Bar moved to revoke the probation in the proceedings discussed above. There was only one period of suspension ever served by me, and that was the three-year suspension that resulted from the revocation. To say that I have been "repeatedly suspended" is absolutely and totally inaccurate, and to say that I have ever been "suspended for case running" is even more inaccurate and unfair. As explained above, I was suspended not for "case running" but for an alleged violation of the "advertising rules."

In closing, you may wonder why these corrections are so important to me. They are important because the press in Texas has repeatedly made statements and innuendoes that are entirely misleading about me. The whole controversy about the so-called "solicitation of cases" is based upon the contention of the State Bar that the manner in which we have used investigators and personnel to follow up on letters sent pursuant to the protection allowed by the Shapero cases violates the rules against solicitation.

I contend that such follow-up efforts are protected by the First Amendment -- particularly where, as in the USAir crash, we had already been employed in a case, and the primary efforts of the personnel were to gather information, further the investigation and, incidentally, determine if any of the potential plaintiffs indicated they had received Mr. O'Quinn's letter and were interested in discussing potential employment, then to arrange for an appointment between the potential client and one of the lawyer members of our team. But the effect of these inaccurate statements is to paint an entirely different picture -- that I am an "ambulance chaser" who engages in in-person solicitation. I request that this letter be printed so that the record can be set straight. I am entitled to at least that much.

Benton Musslewhite
Houston

Editor's reply: Mr. Musslewhite told Mary Flood that private investigator Bob Loving worked with Musslewhite on some occasions, not for Musslewhite, as stated in "O'Quinn Unzipped." Otherwise, the Press stands by the story.

Wild Pickle
Setting aside the astute observation of one Jed Clampett, who must have been thinking of Paula Tholen when he uttered the line about someone being "one pickle shy of a barrel," lions, or any other big cats, do not belong in cages in Manvel, Texas ["The Lion in Manvel," by Randall Patterson, January 30]. They belong in their natural habitat. Female lions are pack animals who hunt down food for the pride to which they belong. To defang and declaw any cat, let alone one from the big cat family, shows a lack of compassion for these mammals. Not that I would actually expect any common sense or compassion from a woman who thought it humorous when her pet snake used the nearest baby for a heating pad. I humbly suggest that her next conquest of all things wild should be to go out and get a great white shark and put it in a really big aquarium. The sad thing is that I'm willing to bet that she doesn't think that's far-fetched.

James Dean
via Internet

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