Smoke Detectors

STATE POLITICS OFTEN AMOUNTS TO ARGUING over money. More money for fixing bridges can mean less money for fixing schools. During those debates, it’s easy to think that if there were only more money, the arguments would disappear or never arise in the first place. But don’t believe it. With the settlement of the suit between Texas and five big tobacco companies, Texas received a commitment for $15 billion of free money from the tobacco companies to be paid over 25 years. The result has been political feuding between Republicans and Democrats that rivals the old-time feuding of John Connally and Ralph Yarborough or Allan Shivers and Lyndon Johnson.

The feuding began over who got to appropriate the money in the settlement. When Attorney General Dan Morales filed the suit in March 1996, the Legislature either ignored him or looked on in apathy, if not contempt. The general opinion was that Morales had almost no chance of succeeding. After he won, Morales decided that the money was his to spend. For several glorious weeks early in the year, his office issued a stream of happy press releases that detailed the grants he was bestowing on institutions in the state for work on public health, particularly among juveniles. Meanwhile, the Legislature found it impossible to ignore $15 billion. After a few skirmishes, Morales, Republican senator Bill Ratliff, who is the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Democratic state representative Rob Junell, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, announced an agreement in which Morales let the Legislature decide how to spend the first payment from the tobacco settlement. But why did Morales, who clearly loved his role as beneficent savior of the children of Texas, cave in so easily? That brings us to the real fight, which promises to be deadly. It isn’t over the big money—that is, the $15 billion—but over the smaller sum of $2.3 billion that has been designated for lawyers’ fees.

Morales contracted with five lawyers and their law firms to try his case against the tobacco companies. The outside lawyers accepted the case for a contingency fee of 15 percent of any judgment plus expenses. If there was no judgment, they would get nothing, not even reimbursement for expenses.

These are the lawyers and firms Morales hired: Walter Umphrey of Beaumont; John M. O’Quinn, P.C., of Houston; John Eddie Williams, Jr., of Houston; Reaud, Morgan, and Quinn of Beaumont; and the Nix Law Firm of Daingerfield.

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