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U.S. District Judge David Hittner and plaintiff's attorney John O'Quinn had a history long before the Kennedy Heights toxic-tort lawsuit brought them together in August. Several years back, Hittner issued a contempt of court citation against O'Quinn after catching the lawyer catnapping at a table in another judge's jury room. That round ended in O'Quinn's favor when an appeals court dismissed the contempt finding, but the pair could be headed for another confrontation before the trial of the Kennedy Heights suit even gets under way.
The point of potential dispute is O'Quinn's explicit denial to the judge in a court hearing that he had talked to a New York Times reporter for an article on the Kennedy Heights case. O'Quinn was quoted in the September 7 front-page story by Houston-based Times correspondent Sam Howe Verhovek, who says he interviewed O'Quinn and several other attorneys from his firm by phone for nearly an hour on August 28. The session had been solicited by a PR firm working for O'Quinn, the reporter says.
In a speech to Kennedy Heights residents at Texas Southern University shortly before the Times's disputed interview, O'Quinn declared, "I've always believed that no matter what, always tell the truth."
By disputing the veracity of Verhovek's story, O'Quinn, who's currently the target of South Carolina and State Bar of Texas probes into his alleged use of case runners to recruit clients from an airplane crash, had pitted his word against the credibility of the formerly gray lady of American newspapering, the Times.
The incident is just one more bizarre twist in the litigation brought by residents of the mostly black southeast Houston subdivision against oil giant Chevron. Their suit alleges Gulf Oil polluted the Kennedy Heights site in the 1920s, and then later sold the land to a developer who peddled homes atop the tainted soil to black Houstonians. Hittner took over the case from U.S. District Judge Ken Hoyt, who recused himself in late August after it was discovered that Hoyt's wife had worked for Gulf, which Chevron later acquired. Since then, Hittner has denied a motion by O'Quinn requesting that Hittner remove himself from the case for bias stemming from that previous contempt citation.
The Times quoted O'Quinn as saying, "Chevron is simply refusing to come to grips with the reality of this case. People in Kennedy Heights drank poisonous water and used poisonous water in the 1970s and 1980s and there is an epidemic of people who have cancer, lupus, birth defects and other illnesses which are unexplainable on any other basis than it was poisonous water." The story also quoted Kennedy Heights residents and a Chevron attorney.
Hittner was irritated by the Times piece because he had admonished all parties at an August 27 hearing to be discreet in discussing the case with the media. Hittner also warned that if the admonition was ignored, he would consider imposing a gag order. Verhovek says the interview with O'Quinn and company came one day after that admonition.
At a September 18 hearing on Kennedy Heights, Hittner told the attorneys he had pulled Verhovek's article off of the Internet and found that it contained comments attributed to both O'Quinn and Chevron attorney Bobby Meadows.
"Anybody want to respond to that?" queried the judge. "That's that big New York Times article. Don't look at it like you haven't read it."
Meadows told Hittner he had indeed spoken to the reporter after the judge's admonition, but said he did so because Verhovek already had comments from O'Quinn and was simply seeking Meadows's response.
Hittner then called on O'Quinn, who denied talking to anyone with the Times.
"I have heard about the article," O'Quinn told Hittner. "I have not read the article; I have been involved in extensive pretrial proceedings involving the 'state of Texas versus tobacco,' but I did not talk to that reporter."
"I am not disagreeing at all," Hittner responded. "But I am saying, the quotations were around it, so someone from the Times [is] putting quotes around statements."
O'Quinn said nothing, and Hittner closed out the discussion by speculating that perhaps the statements in the article were made before he had warned the attorneys about contact with media.
Verhovek is puzzled by O'Quinn's claims that he was never interviewed by the reporter. He produced a message slip taken by the Times answering service from Kristen Grimm Wolf, a senior account executive with Washington, D.C.-based Fenton Communications dated August 28, the day after Hittner issued his admonition to the lawyers. "We can do the interview at 1 p.m. today," the message reads. "He was happy to do this by phone. If you need more documents please come to the office."
Verhovek notes that the lawyer repeatedly identified himself during the interview. "Because we were doing it on the phone and there were several people in the room, including John O'Quinn and Ben Hall," recalls Verhovek, "I just said, 'When you speak, please identify yourself at the outset so I make sure that I'm taking the right notes from the right person.' "
The Times reporter says O'Quinn did most of the talking during the interview, and several times said, "Sam, this is John O'Quinn." Later, Verhovek says, he read back the remark he eventually used in his story, and O'Quinn agreed that it was accurate.