The Insider

Moriarty says he's surprised Lloyd hasn't appointed an ad litem attorney to represent the interests of the clients, "because the real tragedy here is that the people who are owed the money aren't being represented by anybody. It's obvious the lawyer who has been paid tens of millions of dollars already has no interest whatsoever in looking after the interest of the client."

"That's nonsense," retorts Fleming, who says that over ten years his firm and 48 others in 13 states spent at least $22 million in documented expenses on jury trials, appeals and more than 8,000 depositions, among other items. For all that and more, argues Fleming, $85 million in legal fees, on top of a reimbursement for the $22 million in expenses, is reasonable.

As for Moriarty's labeling his old partner as "greedy," Fleming shoots back, "If hypocrisy was an Olympic sport, Moriarty would take the gold, silver and bronze." Fleming claims his fee arrangement was similar to Moriarty's.

But not all of Fleming's polybutylene clients are happy with the outcome of the litigation. Neal Barbee remodeled his mobile home in Baytown using polybutylene piping, which later failed and caused more than $40,000 worth of damage. He signed on with Fleming's firm and eventually received a settlement of $39,500. But after Fleming claimed his cut, Barbee wound up with a check for $19,000.

Barbee's claim was much higher than the average plaintiff's, and in hindsight he feels he should have been represented separately rather than being bundled with thousands of smaller cases. Barbee says he asked Fleming's attorneys whether it would be better for him to file an individual suit, "and they said, 'Let's go with the lawsuit, you'll be compensated fairly.' And they were saying Shell and Celanese would pay the legal fees."

Barbee says he tossed the letter he received from Fleming last month offering him $1,096 to sign over his settlement rights.

"He gouged us the old-fashioned way," says the embittered retiree. "He told us one thing with one hand and did something else with the other hand. He wasn't fair."

Fleming says Barbee's case required two home inspections costing $200 each and a 138-page deposition that cost $500 for the court reporter alone, as well as extensive preparation for the deposition.

"If you figure what we earned hourly, we didn't make much more than checkers at the Randalls stores," claims Fleming, who notes that Barbee signed a contract agreeing to the lawyers' fees.

Despite the criticism from various quarters, Fleming is unrepentant.
"I haven't picked up a file and just settled this case," he says. "We did it the old-fashioned way -- we worked for our money. I don't think you're really talking an outrageous legal fee."

Tell it to the appeals court, counselor.

Barkley Posts Up
The adjectives "Byzantine" and "Machiavellian" always seem to come up short in conveying the reality of courthouse politics. Case in point: the jockeying for position in the upcoming Republican primary for the judgeship of Harris County Criminal Court No. 14. The bench is now occupied by Republican Jim Barkley, whose previous sideline of selling golf clothes out of his judicial chambers earned him the honorary title of "the Harold Wiesenthal of the county judiciary," a reference to the colorful Heights clothier and golf enthusiast.

Barkley announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election. Marshall Shelsey, a county court administrator and friend of Barkley's, then declared his intention to run for Barkley's seat. At the same time, the apparent upcoming opening in Court No. 14 also attracted the eye of Shirley Cornelius, an assistant prosecutor under District Attorney Johnny Holmes.

Because Holmes forbids his employees from running against incumbent judges without resigning from the D.A.'s office, open benches are a prized commodity for assistant prosecutors seeking career advancement. Cornelius, who was jockeying with another prosecutor to run for a to-be-vacated county court position, immediately changed her trajectory and set her designs on Barkley's bench.

Barkley previously settled a damage suit against a local hospital for a botched cancer diagnosis, and during interrogatories for the suit indicated his health would not allow his standing for re-election. But within days of Cornelius's decision late last month to seek election to his court, a reinvigorated Barkley notified GOP headquarters that he would indeed be running in next spring's primary. Shelsey, meanwhile, said last week that he was dissolving his campaign committee and notified Holmes's first assistant, Don Stricklin, of that decision. Since the district attorney has nothing to do with campaign filings, the call was taken as a notice to Holmes that his assistant should get out of the race.

To Cornelius and other court watchers, the suspicion is strong that Barkley is simply blocking prosecutors from challenging Shelsey and will conveniently step aside either before or just after the primary filing deadline to give his friend an open path to his bench.

Barkley dismisses the conspiracy theory and vows he will indeed stand for re-election.

"I changed directions," explains the judge. "I just decided to run for re-election. No jockeying or anything."

Barkley does allow that he and Shelsey are close friends and says he was planning to support Shelsey for the bench. But Shelsey, according to Barkley, alerted him to some unspecified personal issues that gave Barkley additional reasons to seek re-election.

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