By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
At first glance, Houston State Representative Joe Michael Nixonand Spring's Oak Ridge Baptist Church would seem to have a lot in common.
In the past few years both have been forced to leave their homes because of health-threatening mold contamination. Both filed claims to cover the costs of remediating the damage and both claims were initially denied by their insurance companies.
The 46-year-old Nixon moved his wife and three teenage sons to a cramped two-bedroom apartment for a year while the mold demons were exorcised from his Briargrove Park home in West Houston. The church had to move out of its contaminated building on I-45 and hold its services at four different temporary locations, losing half its membership in the process.
There the similarities between the mold cases of the District 133 legislator and the church end, even though their paths have now converged.
Nixon received a $300,000 settlement of his claim by Farmers Insurance Group. It has spawned a Travis County grand jury investigation after a former Farmers official claimed the payout was unjustified favoritism designed to influence a state legislator.
The church is still seeking its day in court. A trial had been set for last February in Montgomery County, but in November 2002 the defendants -- a group of insurance companies headed by Utica Lloyd's of Texas -- added a new attorney to their team.
He was none other than Joe M. Nixon.
Church attorney Fred Hagans immediately suspected that Nixon was being brought in to provide the defense with a foolproof delaying tactic. Under state law, legislator-lawyers can receive continuances in cases as long as their official duties in Austin prevent them from performing their legal duties for clients. That automatic continuance is applicable from 30 days before a legislative session to 30 days afterwards.
Unfortunately for Oak Ridge Baptist, the state this year embarked on the mother of all legislative seasons. There has been the regular session and two special sessions so far, with the possibility of more before the congressional redistricting controversy is settled. Two continuances have already been granted to Nixon's client due to his status as a Texas House member. The delays could push the trial -- and the uncertain future for the church -- into next year.
Attorney Hagans claims Nixon has done little in the case beyond providing a large speed bump on the road to justice.
"He did absolutely nothing prior to the first trial setting except to appear at the hearing for the motion on continuance," says the attorney. He notes that Nixon did appear at two later depositions of defense witnesses.
"He spent time paying bills during one of them, and read the newspaper in the other one," chuckles Hagans. "In one where he was the only lawyer, he never made an objection."
The lead defense attorney is Brock Akers. According to Hagans, "Utica Insurance didn't come down and hire Joe Nixon. They came down and hired Akers and his people, who were certainly sufficient until they needed a continuance."
Nixon declines to discuss his role in the case, and whether he was hired to provide a "get out of court" card for his clients.
"We're going to try our case at the courthouse, where it ought to be tried," says Nixon, who in fact has been the sole reason for the case not being tried for six months. "I'm not going to try it in the Press."
Hagans labels Nixon a hypocrite for accepting a mold settlement from an insurance company seeking legislative influence, while using his status as a public official to prevent others from getting their cases heard in court in a timely manner.
While Nixon wouldn't address the issue of hypocrisy, he did tell constituents in a newsletter sent out last February that "the homeowners insurance crisis has been primarily driven by a barrage of increasingly expensive mold claims."
He went on to blast "a cottage industry of mold remediators and experts who are unregulated and unlicensed." Additionally, noted Nixon, "the science behind much of the alleged danger of various molds is coming into question."
Of course, that stance didn't stop the legislator from using his own remediators and experts and their own questionable science as the basis for his mold claim.
As for his own settlement, Nixon hints that he asked for even more than Farmer's gave him. "There's a lot of assumptions," he says. "How do you know the claim wasn't really $600,000 and I settled it for less?"
Nixon also sees a distinction between receiving a cash settlement and the payments by the insurance company to the contractors working on his house. "You sound like that money went to me, not to contractors," says the legislator. He ignores the fact that the settlement paid for the complete redo of his 35-year-old home, including new floors and outdoor improvements as well as a landscaped backyard and a new driveway.
It was that final claim for the driveway that caused Isabelle Arnold, the Farmers Insurance national mold manager at the time, to complain in a recently publicized e-mail that the state rep received preferential treatment on an unjustified claim.
Nixon denies the allegation. "This was a horrible experience and it was very, very challenging on my kids and my family to go through this. Farmer's has admitted they owed every penny, even the last little bit that was in dispute.
"Knowing what I had to go through, people shouldn't have to go through this," says Nixon.
That's a sentiment shared by Gordon Sudduth, senior pastor at Oak Ridge Baptist. He detailed in a court affidavit how in December 2001, "a large group left the church because they saw it would be a long ordeal. Many young couples wanted more for their children Our effectiveness in the community has been neutralized without a place to provide child care and youth activities we once took pride in hosting."
Unlike the church -- it is still fighting the insurance companies with no settlement in sight, thanks to the court continuances secured by Nixon -- the legislator says he has come out of his mold experience with a different set of sympathies.
"I felt very sorry for the insurance industry," explains Nixon, "'cause they didn't feel they had any control over the process, because they had a whole group of lawyers out there ready for them to make a mistake. And if they did, then they were going to bring these gargantuan lawsuits."
Attorney Hagans represented Melinda Ballard in a recent mold case that gained a jury verdict of $32 million dollars from Farmers Insurance. It is currently on appeal.
"I can say without any equivocation that if Joe Nixon's current story is accurate, then he got preferential treatment," says Hagans. "That's not the way Farmer's has treated anybody else even in terms of the time periods it took." As Hagans points out, Ballard was out of her house for four years, and Oak Ridge Baptist has been without a permanent place of worship for three.
According to Nixon, the grand jury investigation and Hagans's attacks are all part of the work of Texas trial lawyers who are furious at him for sponsoring "tort reform" legislation to cut back on wasteful litigation and exorbitant judgments.
"That's the irony of this whole thing," commented Nixon, choking with laughter for a moment. "Fred would want my case to sue for a whole lot. And I'm not doing that. So [he thinks] there's got to be some skulduggery. Well, there's not any."
He pauses to consider his position. "When you have citizen legislators, we're supposed to take our personal experiences to the statehouse and figure out what's best for everybody. That's the whole point of it."
Based on his actions on both sides of the mold issue, it appears that Nixon is much better at figuring out what's best for himself than for his constituents.