Archive for June, 2012

Feinberg book: Hood ‘trial lawyers’ favorite’ - Barbour ‘profile in courage’

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

As settlement master for Agent Orange and asbestos litigation, to arbitrator on the Zapruder Film and Holocaust litigation, to serving as Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and TARP Executive Compensation, Kenneth Feinberg has a long a history of determining “Who Gets What” - the title of his new book.

The final chapter of his book looks at the “Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico” in which he played the role of government appointed administrator of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund.

He offers a few words on some Mississippi elected officials, particularly Attorney General Jim Hood, then Governor Haley Barbour and U.S. Senators Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran.

In Mississippi, Attorney General Jim Hood, in a tight race for reelection, and a favorite of the trial lawyers suing BP, was a consistent, ongoing critic (and remains so to this day). No effort by the GCCF [Gulf Coast Claims Facility] to address his daily criticisms had any impact. He was determined to politicize the entire debate. Hood had no Gulf Coast equal when it came to attacking both the GCCF and me personally. At one time he stated, “[...]Given the number of complaints lodged against the GCCF by Mississippi claimants, I am compelled to conduct an investigation.”

Hood then went one step further. He held his own town hall meetings and offered to assist any Mississippi claimants who formally authorized him to review their individual GCCF files. Hood received 155 authorizations, and he demanded complete access to all of them. The GCCF complied.

We never heard another word from him about any of these 155 claims.

But more than any other politician, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour gets my vote as a profile in courage. Testifying before a House Congressional Committee assessing the Gulf recovery efforts post-oil spill, Barbour was asked what he thought of the GCCF and its ongoing effort to compensate claimants. Expecting a broadside attack directed at the GCCF and a gratuitous swipe at the Obama administration, committee members must have been surprised by the governor’s answer:

“I’m a recovering lawyer, OK? Do I know that a judge has ruled that the Gulf Coast compensation facility, whatever it’s called, that that is not truly independent of BP, and that may legally, technically be right. I think they are trying to do a good job. We don’t get many complaints in Mississippi. They’re doing something that’s complicated, and I will say this about it. It is sure better than having to litigate all this, where people wouldn’t get their money for years and years and years, and the trial lawyers would get half the money. So it is a long way from perfect, just like what I do is a long way from perfect. But I think it is better than the alternative of litigation. And as I say, we have cases that are difficult cases where people are not satisfied. But we really don’t get many complaints, and we’ve been paid-Mississippi companies, people have been paid about 340 [million dollars], $350 million.”

This was a rare and gratifying public admission that the GCCF was doing a difficult job well.

I was also amused by, and grateful for, a joint letter that Senators Vitter, Cochran, and Wicker sent to President Obama and released to the press early in 2011. Despite all the criticism I was receiving in the Gulf, they were concerned that I would resign as GCCF administrator….Their letter implicitly acknowledged that much of the criticism already directed at me was unjustified; in any event, they wanted to make sure I stayed the course.

InJustice producer: “I don’t come up with solutions. I bring awareness”

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Last week I wrote about the film “InJustice: A Film About Greed & Corruption in America’s Lawsuit Industry” which interviewed a number of Mississippians and featured the wrongdoings of other Mississippians. The film was screened in Jackson, Mississippi as part of a nationwide tour. Here is a quick video recap of the reactions.

As a follow up to my column (read here: ‘InJustice’ and state’s trial lawyers) I was able to sit down with Brian Kelly, the film’s producer, before the screening.

Kelly’s background includes 27 years in network filmmaking including senior roles at Discovery and Investigation Discovery. What peaked his interest in this subject was an article from Reader’s Digest on the silicosis case thrown out of court in Texas when Judge Janice Jack determined many of the medical records were falsified. Kelly said the article provided a great outline for a film including trial transcripts and story action.

Kelly explored that case along with Milberg Weiss scandal involving among others William Lerach and Mel Weiss, and of course in Mississippi the Scruggs Scandal. Of Lerach, Weiss and Scruggs, Kelly said, “The film is not meant to bash lawyers…[these lawyers] had one thing in common when we finished the film, they were all in jail.”

With the Scruggs Scandal, Kelly said what bothered him the most was how attorney Johnny Jones described the Scruggs legal strategy as a stool with three legs: politics, public relations and the law. He said when looking at how politics and public relations played into the cases he thought, “Wait. Isn’t this supposed to be about justice?”

He said the film cut a lot of “man on the street” interviews for time sake, but generally the response was “that’s just lawyers; that’s what they do.” He said that apathy is troubling and it is difficult for anyone or any business to do the right thing if they’re afraid of getting sued by lawyers who use the law as a club and a threat.

That fear of uncertainty extends beyond big companies, and the apathy in the average citizen toward certainty in the law diminishes confidence in the legal system.

Kelly asked, “If you’re IBM and you can’t get justice, how can a single mom going into court in Jackson, Mississippi get justice?”

Kelly said the film is about abuse in the legal system by specific individuals and does not deal with policy issues. “I’m a film maker. I don’t come up with solutions. I bring awareness,” Kelly said. He said if the film somehow makes things better, that’s a great thing. But it doesn’t keep him up at night trying to change the world because that isn’t his job: “I doubt I’m going to change policy. State legislators: that’s their job.”

As to a follow up film on legal abuses, Kelly said there is a great appetite for more, “I feel like there’s another movie ready to be made.” But he wouldn’t elaborate on his next project, he said, until it has the green light for production.

Kelly said his favorite part of this project is connecting with the viewers. In television, his feedback essentially was make a show, get the ratings, make another show. Now he gets direct interaction from e-mail and social media, as well as in the screening tour questions and answers and watching an audience react.

As to suggestions that this film is an answer to the movie “Hot Coffee” he said he was unaware of that production until after he had finished “InJustice.” He said sometimes people are better able to dismiss a film they don’t like if they label it. So some people call this a “tort reform” film and put it in that box so they don’t have to confront it.

But you can confront it anytime you want, now, even if you missed the screening. The film is available for purchase as a digital download ($4.95) or DVD ($13.20).

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