Business As Usual

The State Bar of Texas tries again to KAYO John O'Quinn but can't lay a glove on him

As he testified, at times defiant, at times seemingly depressed, he looked every so often at his father, sitting 15 feet away. He said he had a "love-hate relationship" with Benton but that he "would rather be anywhere else on the planet" than testifying in court.

Perhaps sensing that he would lose any charm matchup with his father, Charles tried to vaccinate the jury for what he knew would be coming. "Benton, my father, he comes across as very believable, but lots of time the truth with him is a movable object," he said.

For his part, during a break in Charles's testimony Benton put on a rueful face. "They've made a self-righteous snitch out of him, and it's hurt him in the legal profession," he said. "It's all semantical games he's talking about up there. He's still my son and I love him, but they've just sold him on all this -- if he saw me commit an overt act that was improper I could almost understand him getting up there, but all this about talking in codes and all...."

As if to emphasize the difference between the stumbling son and the silver-tongued dad, the bar followed Charles by calling Benton as an adverse witness. Inexplicably, they began by asking open-ended questions that allowed Benton to turn to the jury and expound in his inimitable way about himself and the ins and outs of solicitation laws.

Benton has long made no secret that he pushes the envelope on solicitation laws, believing that they are too broadly written to pass constitutional muster and that free-speech challenges would overturn almost any conviction. He can go on and on, citing case law and legal definitions, as he explains that while it's improper to do a cold-call solicitation in person or on the phone, it's perfectly proper to send a letter and then have a representative of the lawyer inquire -- either in person or on the phone -- whether the victim or relative had received that letter.

Musslewhite and O'Quinn have a long and tortured history together; Musslewhite bridles at the widely held view that he merely amasses cases and passes them on to O'Quinn. Musslewhite filed for bankruptcy a few years ago, however, and the files show that his legal business -- and to a large extent his personal life -- is essentially a wholly owned subsidiary of O'Quinn's firm. O'Quinn financed the legal practice, and he gave loans to pay off Benton's personal bills (much of the financing, critics note darkly, occurring after the USAir controversy heated up).

In his testimony at the disbarment trial, Musslewhite frankly acknowledged that getting additional business was a distinct possibility that could arise from what he insisted was a valid investigation. But, he said, he had insisted that the people he hired follow the rules as he saw them, repeating the mantra that apparently resulted in a plethora of dotted i's and crossed t's in South Carolina.

If Benton Musslewhite was the pre-Monica Bill Clinton of the defendants, effortlessly deflecting hostile questions, then Carl Shaw and John O'Quinn were the Al Gores, fighting back every inquiry with hair-splitting objections and dredging up memories of Gore's infamously robotic "no controlling legal authority" press conference performance of a year ago.

First up was Shaw, a dark, intense 36-year-old who seemed in awe of his boss, O'Quinn, and willing to take a bullet for him.

Shaw had made two trips to South Carolina. On one of those trips he had to deal with a pressing problem: The O'Quinn team had signed up the grandmother of a child whose parents were killed in the crash; unfortunately for them the child's other grandmother wasn't as eager to sign up.

According to the bar, Shaw, Edward and Dillard went to the house of the second grandmother, Sally Stephenson, and threatened her with losing all custody rights to the child if she didn't sign up. According to Shaw, nothing of the sort happened.

"I was in Sally Stephenson's house for five to seven minutes," he testified. "I told her how I felt badly for the loss her family had suffered, and I explained to her that [other family members] had signed [the child] up with us, and I gave her the name of a local attorney who could help her with some social security and estate problems she said she was having.... She was very nice and cordial while we were there."

He denied ever calling Stephenson a bitch or saying anything that would upset her. (He also helpfully made clear, "Mr. O'Quinn has never asked me and never would ask me to solicit.... He has never asked me or anyone I know of to improperly acquire business for the firm.")

But Shaw was and always would be small potatoes in this case, a guppy caught up in the hunt for the Great White Whale who was the main target. And that target, John O'Quinn, nearly lost his own case for himself on the stand.

As a lawyer, he's a master of the courtroom, connecting emotionally with juries, respecting or disdaining his opponents as circumstances warrant. As a witness, he was a disaster, fumbling through false modesty as Cannon questioned him and arrogantly treating bar attorney Morrison in a manner that left the image of aggressive bad manners instead of a principled refusal to cooperate.

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