Vinson & Elkins' political clout is a legacy of its founder, Judge James Elkins, but it does not come cheap for the firm's 237 partners. Dues for V&E's state and federal political action committees are on the order of membership fees for a downscale country club -- roughly $3,000 a year for the more senior lawyers. V&E's 288 associates, the junior members of the firm, are not allowed to participate with the big boys, presumably because they don't have the salary to spend. The partners themselves supposedly are given the option not to take part in the political tithing, but very few exercise that right. Peer pressure can be heavy, you know.
Partners who wish to contribute directly to candidates of their choice and then get a reduction of their PAC assessment must obtain the permission of the president of V&E's PACs, Joe B. Allen, who enters the credit in what his predecessor, Marion "Sandy" Sanford, inventively titled the "Mystic Book." (Sanford, who wore a ponytail and an earring during his years at V&E, maintained a style that probably sent the conservative Elkins spinning in his grave on a daily basis.)
The existence of the Mystic Book and the assessments for political donations are just a few of the revealing details disclosed in a fascinating deposition taken last year from Allen by Asher Rabinowitz, a lawyer who represented Marian E. Britton in a suit filed against Vinson & Elkins in a Washington, D.C., federal court. Britton has accused the firm of mismanaging her family's estate.
Britton's lawyers were clearly concerned by the prospect of the lawsuit's somehow being transferred to a Houston judiciary used to getting helpful campaign contributions from V&E, and used the deposition to probe the political structure of the law firm and its influence on local judges. (Britton's suit has since been dismissed by the D.C. federal court, but that decision is being appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.)
V&E has never gone out of its way to publicize the inner workings of its PAC. In fact, at the conclusion of the deposition Rabinowitz took from Allen, an attorney from V&E's Washington branch, J. Alan Galbraith, requested that Rabinowitz refrain from disseminating the contents to outside parties. "We have talked about rather sensitive subjects regarding Vinson & Elkins and its partners," allowed Galbraith, who got assurances from the other attorneys they wouldn't shop the deposition to the media. The Press happened upon it while researching suits filed against V&E.
In the deposition, Allen disclosed that while he directs the firm's two PACs, a three-lawyer panel votes to approve all large campaign contributions. In addition to Allen, the triumvirate includes managing partner Harry Reasoner and Paul Stallings, the veteran head of one of the firm's litigation sections.
As Rabinowitz calculated, V&E, in the previous nine years, had poured approximately $1.2 million into judicial campaign coffers in Texas, almost exclusively directed to civil judges. Between July 1989 and April 1994, the total was $630,000. Of that amount, $155,961 went to the campaigns of Texas Supreme Court justices, who are the final arbiters of civil appeals in the state. Vinson & Elkins is, almost exclusively, a civil law firm.
During the same five-year period, V&E was similarly generous to justices on the 1st and 14th Court of Appeals, the direct avenues for the appeal of decisions coming out of Harris County district courts. The firm's state PAC contributed $42,500 to judges on the 1st Court and $60,000 to judges on the 14th Court, where V&E's appeal of the judgment in the Moran family's lawsuit currently resides. V&E's PAC also gave $45,400 to justices on the 3rd Court of Appeals, which rules on appeals out of the Austin area, and $219,681 to various Harris County judges.
According to Allen, the "normal" Vinson & Elkins political contribution to a sitting state district judge is $2,500 to $3,000 per election cycle. The routine contribution to an appellate court judge is a bit higher, from $3,000 to $5,000. The norm for a Texas Supreme Court justice is $5,000.
Rabinowitz quizzed Allen about the motivation for the contributions. Allen refused to accept Rabinowitz's characterization of the gifts as "enlightened self-interest" and responded, "I think that as a firm that is based in Texas we have an interest in what goes on in Texas ... in the Texas judiciary."
He did concede that judges who are recipients of the V&E largess were likely to be ruling on its cases: "Well, I mean, we essentially appear before all the judges in Harris County. All right? I assume at least over the time period [from 1989-94] it would be extremely rare for V&E not to have a case in all those courts." Asked if a substantial number of those judges actively solicited campaign money from V&E, Allen answered in the affirmative.
Only rarely do judges refuse campaign money from V&E's PAC or partners, but Allen recalled that state District Judge Kathleen Stone returned a contribution after the Moran case was assigned to her court and told V&E she could not accept contributions from the firm as long as the case was pending.
Stone, however, remembers the incident somewhat differently. She says one of her fundraisers inadvertently solicited a contribution from V&E to retire her campaign debt, and V&E's Stallings called the fundraiser to say the firm would be happy to contribute but wanted the judge to be aware there was a case pending in her court involving the firm. Stone says that she then instructed the campaign worker "to thank them, but of course I couldn't take the contribution."
Rabinowitz closely questioned Allen about a sizable series of contributions, totaling $20,000, from V&E to state District Judge Sharolyn Wood between 1990 and 1992. In November 1992, Wood dismissed a lawsuit by former Hermann Hospital executive Harry Neer against the hospital and V&E.
Allen explained the unusually large contributions as an effort by the firm to aid Wood in marshaling opposition to a proposal ramrodded by state Senator Rodney Ellis that would have mandated the election of state judges by districts in Harris County, rather than by the current countywide method. Allen testified in the deposition that V&E's position was that if the district proposal passed, "you would have a very parochial, provincial system of electing judges." (The firm's point of view prevailed, and Ellis' proposal failed).
Getting back to that "Mystic Book," Allen said that the ledger of contributions partners have made independently is now actually more of a Mystic Database that resides in his secretary's computer. Allen says he passes judgment on whether a partner's independent contributions to candidates should be credited against that lawyer's PAC dues. (Such credits cannot be made for contributions to the firm's federal PAC.)
In explaining how the system works, Allen offered the hypothetical case of a partner who came to him and said, " 'I want to give all of [my dues] to Ann Richards, because I love Ann Richards.'
"Well, from an institutional standpoint," Allen dryly added, "that doesn't make any sense."
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In an interview with the Press, former V&E managing partner Evans Attwell insisted the firm is not trying to buy judges with political cash, but is forced to give to even the courtroom playing field with its adversaries, the plaintiff's bar.
"It's not that you get influence with judges," said Attwell. "It's something we would do anything to get rid of. We want appointed judges. This is the bane of our existence, so to speak. It's something that started over the years and it's come to be expected and we're almost caught in a trap."
V&E's contributions, sizable as they are, pale by comparison with those of the plaintiff's attorneys, Attwell said. "It is on the order of one to a hundred. Not even close. That's not a firm view, just my personal view. We've gotten into a trap we'd like to get out of, but to stay on a par with all the other firms we continue it."
V&E's state PAC is also an influential player in city of Houston elections, where Allen, who lobbies Mayor Bob Lanier and City Council on behalf of various corporate interests, helped organize an informal slate of pro-Lanier incumbents and aspiring councilmembers this year. All won their races in the November 7 election, save for two who are in runoffs this weekend. They are David Ballard for at-large Position 3 and Saundria Chase Gray in District