Legal Moves

Attorney John O'Quinn has checked into a substance-abuse center as he prepares for his disbarment suit

As he prepares to fight for his legal life in the most important trial of his high-profile career, Houston attorney John O'Quinn seems to be disintegrating personally and professionally.

Battling a disbarment suit that alleges he supervised an energetic ambulance-chasing operation after a 1994 airplane disaster, O'Quinn has been unable to keep a defense team together, going through a series of high-priced legal guns. He has also suffered a string of physical setbacks.

And finally, on July 10, he checked himself into one of the nation's leading psychiatric and substance-abuse centers.

O'Quinn will spend 90 days in the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, the renowned facility that gained fame most recently as the place where Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre sought treatment for a painkiller addiction.

Menninger -- which does not release the names of patients -- treats psychological problems such as depression and substance abuse and was named the second-best psychiatric hospital in the country in a survey published in the July 27 U.S. News and World Report.

O'Quinn's admission to Menninger became public in a court document filed July 21 that outlined an agreement between him and the Texas State Bar to move back the disbarment trial from August 3 to December 7.

If O'Quinn leaves the in-patient Menninger program before 90 days have elapsed, he could be hit with court sanctions, according to the agreement. He cannot appear in any courtroom before October 8, "but is not precluded by this agreement from the practice of law," the document says. (Menninger patients typically cannot receive incoming phone calls but can make outgoing calls during set times during the day.)

As part of the agreement, O'Quinn also agreed to put a hold on his countersuit against the bar until a final judgment is entered in the disbarment suit.

O'Quinn's entrance into Menninger came just four days after he was turned down by visiting Judge Bill Rhea on his request to delay the disbarment trial until February because of turmoil on the defense team.

Michael Tigar, the former University of Texas Law School professor who represented Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, withdrew as O'Quinn's lead attorney in June, refusing to comment on why. (The move did coincide, however, with Tigar's decision to take a law faculty job in Washington, D.C.). Tigar had come on board in April to replace Houston attorney Tom McDade, who also withdrew without comment from the case.

O'Quinn is now represented by Dallas attorney Donald Godwin, who emphasizes his client's physical ailments as much as the substance abuse. "He has various problems; he has acute diabetes, hypertension and some problems with alcoholism, and he is dealing with it and is in the right place to do it," says Godwin. "It is John's position and ours that the pressure of dealing with this state bar suit has taken a toll on him mentally and physically."

Rumors about O'Quinn's excessive drinking have cropped up from time to time in the Houston legal community. The attorney told the Houston Chronicle in January that he "had worked very hard to overcome any problem I've had with drinking," but stories of binge episodes -- none of them proven, some no doubt exaggerated -- never went away.

O'Quinn pleaded no contest in 1997 to a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated; he currently faces charges of evading arrest in connection with a bizarre incident in February in which he allegedly refused to stop his car for a Houston police officer who saw him make an illegal turn and hit the siren and lights. The officer followed O'Quinn into a parking garage, not catching up until the attorney had exited his car.

The scheduled trial on that charge was delayed when O'Quinn's attorney, Richard "Racehorse" Haynes, told the court his client had broken an ankle. O'Quinn's physician also said the lawyer had gone into a diabetic coma July 9.

The evading-arrest trial was delayed until October (and likely will be delayed again), but the disbarment suit presents much more of a problem for O'Quinn, named one of the country's richest attorneys by Fortune magazine.

The bar charges that O'Quinn supervised a team that hustled clients after a USAir jet crashed in North Carolina in 1994. After a lengthy investigation by criminal authorities in South Carolina -- where most of the victims lived -- O'Quinn pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of, in effect, practicing law in South Carolina without a license or permission from that state.

Seven more serious charges, including felony counts of illegally soliciting cases, were dropped as part of a plea bargain.

O'Quinn has denied any unethical conduct, saying he was not totally aware of everything attorneys associated with him were doing in South Carolina. In court documents filed in the disbarment suit, he says the bar is trying to hold him "vicariously responsible for the ethical lapses of others."

If a judge or jury sides with the bar, O'Quinn's decision to enter the Menninger Clinic may prove to be beneficial. According to the bar's disciplinary rules, drug and alcohol abuse can be mitigating factors in assessing punishment for violations if an attorney is making a good-faith effort to treat the problem.

Contact Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houstonpress.com.

 
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