CHARLESTON – Scott Segal calls the ABC News report focusing on his wife – West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis – a “hatchet job.”
Segal spoke Friday on the statewide MetroNews talk radio show “Talkline” with host Hoppy Kercheval.
“They’ve done a hatchet job on Robin, and it’s not right that the listeners and the people of this state don’t realize what a hatchet job they’ve done,” said Segal, who owns the Segal Law Firm in Charleston.
The ABC report that aired Tuesday on ABC World News Tonight and Nightline was titled “Lear Jet Justice in West Virginia? A ‘Circus Masquerading as a Court.’” It revealed Segal sold a Learjet to attorney Michael Fuller for just over $1 million and that Fuller helped raise thousands of dollars for Davis’ 2012 re-election campaign.
The report, by the network’s chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, reveals that Fuller of the Mississippi-based McHugh Fuller Law Group purchased a Learjet from Segal and contributed and campaigned for contributions to Davis’s re-election in 2012 – as he was handling the nursing home abuse case headed for the state’s high court.
Earlier this year, Davis authored the majority opinion upholding a jury verdict for Fuller’s client, but cut the punitive damages award from $80 million to about $32 million. The original jury verdict was worth more than $90 million. Fuller’s firm received a payout worth more than $17 million, according to the ABC News report.
On Friday’s “Talkline” show, Segal stressed that he and Davis take measures to ensure she doesn’t know about the business dealings of his law firm.
“What I think is important … is that ABC News knew when they called Justice Davis … the rules of judicial conduct do not allow Robin Davis to know anything about the inner workings of the Segal Law Firm, the transactions of the Segal Law Firm,” he told Kercheval. “They knew that when they called her out.
“In fact, the very first time Robin ever heard the approximate sale price of that jet was when ABC News disclosed it to her. She had no prior knowledge of that transaction other than the fact that I sold the jet and I bought another jet. That was all she knew.
“The point is that she had no knowledge of any of what ABC is talking about other than the fact that I had sold the jet and we got another one.”
Kercheval asked Segal if he thought Davis knew about the 2011 jet sale when Fuller and the other attorneys argued the case before the court.
“My best guess is by that time she did know that Mr. Fuller’s law firm … yes, I think she knew that by then,” he said.
Later Friday, Segal told The West Virginia Record that while he thinks Davis might have known who bought the plane when the case was argued before the court, she knew no other details.
“She didn’t know the terms of the price or anything until ABC News told her,” he told The Record.
On “Talkline,” Segal again stressed that Davis isn’t involved in the transactions of the Segal Law Firm.
“She sees that I get $25 million verdicts and $400-plus million verdicts in the newspaper,” he said. “Does that mean she can no longer sit on cases of the law firms that defended those cases? The only thing she knows is that is a matter of public record. …
That’s like saying she walks into my office and she sees a new computer is on my desk. She doesn’t know how much I paid for it or who it was purchased from.”
“The price I received was well within the high-low range – and actually toward the low end – of what they were selling for at that time,” he said.
Segal also said he has no close relationship with Fuller.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a room with Mr. Fuller,” he said. “I know I’ve never met him, and I’ve never spoken to him.”
Segal explained that the jet sale was handled by a broker in Washington, D.C. It was a law firm that specializes in aviation law and has a holding company for the sale of planes.
“They brought me offers in writing,” he said. Offers were made. Several were rejected. One came in and I accepted it. I didn’t even know who I was accepting it from until I signed the paperwork.”
Segal said he couldn’t speculate on the $35,000 in campaign contributions the ABC report says Fuller bundled for Davis’ 2012 re-election campaign.
“That’s what lawyers do when they’re giving to campaigns,” he told Kercheval. “If anyone suggests you could influence Robin with $35,000 or a million dollars or $10 million obviously have never met the woman. They don’t know much about her, if anything about her. And it’s ludicrous.
“Robin could write herself a $35,000 check anytime she wanted to. Why would she need someone to bundle money for her? And she and I don’t read those reports. She’s not allowed to and, therefore, I don’t.”
Segal continued to praise his wife’s record.
“I believe if you asked every defense lawyer in the state of West Virginia, 85 to 95 percent of them would tell you it’s ridiculous to think you could influence Robin Davis because of a campaign contribution,” he said.
Kercheval asked Segal why attorneys contribute to judicial campaigns.
“I think because they want good, hard-working judges who call the balls and strikes in the legal world as fairly as they can after they’ve worked hard and struggled with what’s the right answer,” Segal replied. “And I believe most people will tell you, since the beginning of the court, Robin is probably the finest ball/strike caller we’ve ever had on the bench.
“And I think any of the lawyers in this state, except a few maybe disgruntled ones, would tell you that that’s the case.”
Segal said he is offended by the ABC report.
“Of course, I’m offended by it,” he said. “I’ve been in love with this woman for 35 years. She’s been my wife for over 32 years. Yes, I’m offended.
And I’ll tell you something else that offends me, Hoppy. I work in this court system every day. I work with the justices of our state Supreme Court and our state court judges every single day of my life except Saturdays and Sundays. And this is a darn good system. And I hate it when people pull tricks like this and don’t tell the public what the rules for the judges are, and act like they violated them. …
“A great lawyer once told me the courtroom is the last place in America where the truth has a chance. I believe that. I believe Robin believes that, and I believe most of the hard-working judges and justices in our state believe that.”
Kercheval later asked Segal to speculate if he were in the defense attorney’s shoes in the nursing home case if he would want to know about such a transaction and campaign contributions involving a justice hearing the case.
“I don’t know that about other judges, what their personal life is and what they buy and what they sell,” Segal said. “When I go in front of a judge, I don’t know any of those things. …
“I clearly think their client, if they wanted to do that, they could have done that.”
Kercheval pressed Segal more.
“I would have told the client those facts … if I knew them as their lawyer, and if you get Justice Davis off this case, you’re a fool because she’s the best ball and strike caller we’ve had on that bench in years,” he said. “Don’t do it to yourself. … But my advice would be don’t do it. …
“If it were any other justice I know and trust, my advice would be the same.”
Kercheval then asked Segal if he would want to know about such a transaction and if it would be something he’d pursue if there was anything possibly that could be a conflict of interest.
“No,” Segal replied. “I expect them to disclose it if they know it, and if they don’t know it, I don’t care.”
Kercheval asked if Segal has considered legal action against ABC News.
“I prefer not to answer that question without counsel,” Segal said. “I’m not a First Amendment lawyer from Washington, D.C., or New York City.”
The nursing home company, HCR Manorcare, issued a statement after the ABC News report saying it didn’t know about the airplane deal until the report was aired. Company officials said they now are reviewing their legal options.
“Ever since the Douglas decision was announced, we have shared Justice (Allen) Loughry’s opinion, expressed in his strongly-worded dissent, that the majority was attempting to ‘hide its shockingly result oriented analysis’ and his observation that, ‘without question, the biases and whims of the majority are on full display in its boldly tortured analysis,’” the company said in its statement.
“The ABC News story may have revealed some of the motivations to hide and torture that analysis, and it may have exposed a relationship that speaks to the majority’s ‘whims’ and ‘biases.’ In the many states in which we do business, there is an expectation of transparency and fairness for the judges and justices in high courts. The lack of transparency in West Virginia, at least in this instance, is extremely troubling. We are disturbed and alarmed and reviewing all available legal options as events there continue to unfold.”
Davis told ABC she did not disclose the deal, saying she was under no obligation because it involved her husband.
“With regards to my husband’s plane, let me … be abundantly clear, the plane is owned by my husband, it was sold through a broker, an airplane broker, and I understand that ABC has spoken to my husband, and to the broker,” she told ABC News. “Other than that, I have nothing else to say to them. Have a great day.”
Segal similarly told the network the jet was his law firm’s asset to sell and that Davis “doesn’t have anything to do with” his firm.
In a three-page statement, released minutes before the report aired, Davis denied the sale price was a secret. She said she did not know the price Segal’s firm received until Tuesday, when she asked him to look it up.
“The firm received $1,001,688.07,” Davis said. “That amount, as with the Blue Book value on any automobile, was well within the market range of planes or that type, model and age.”
As to whether she should have recused herself from Manor Care Inc. v. Douglas because the plane was purchased by an attorney in the case, Davis said no.
“In fact, it never occurred to me for a moment to consider that this would be a reason for recusal because it was a distant transaction,” she explained. “I was not involved in the details of the transaction and only learned about them much after the fact.
“It involved a person I don’t know socially and with whom my husband has had no other business dealings. When the case at issue was before the court, there was no pending financial transaction between my husband, any of his companies, or any litigant or lawyer in the case. The plane had been sold in an arms-length transaction on the open market years before.
“There was absolutely no reason for my recusal.”
Campaign contributions and lawyer’s hiring
The ABC News report also highlighted Fuller’s $1,000 contribution to Davis’ 2012 re-election campaign.
In addition to his check, Fuller admitted to advocating for the chief justice, helping to raise more than $35,000 for Davis. Many of the donors were from his home state of Florida and Mississippi, where Fuller’s legal practice is based.
Davis quickly shot down allegations of improper campaign contributions, noting that the state’s Code of Judicial Ethics prohibits judicial candidates from soliciting contributions or even from knowing the identities of people who contribute to their campaigns.
“I have never once looked at a list of my campaign contributors,” she said. “I can’t tell you who did or did not contribute to my campaigns. It is of little interest to me.”
According to the network’s report, Fuller also hired Paul Farrell, who worked at the law firm founded by Justice Menis Ketchum and currently employing Ketchum’s son.
The move forced Ketchum to recuse himself from the nursing home case.
“The new details being reported by ABC News, which were previously never disclosed, unfortunately raise ethical concerns and reflect negatively upon West Virginia’s legal system,” said Roman Stauffer of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. “It’s time for us to get serious about ensuring that every West Virginian has access to a fair and impartial court system.
“For many years millionaire personal injury attorneys have wielded tremendous access and influence over our state’s legal system, our legislative bodies and executive branch. They have used our legal system and their influence and power to enrich themselves as many hard-working West Virginian’s struggle to feed their families and wish they could see more jobs come to our state.”
Justice accuses crew of being ‘underhanded’
Davis said the ABC News report is unfair.
First, she noted, it did not report that the case was a 4-1 decision. She also took issue with the so-called “experts” – Sample and Steven Gillers, an ethics professor at New York University Law School.
The justice said they “clearly” have no knowledge of West Virginia or its system of recusal.
“My fellow justices and I consistently follow the recusal process followed by every federal court in the country and the United States Supreme Court,” she said. “If my husband has a financial interest in a case that comes before the Supreme Court, I have always recused myself and I shall always do so.”
Davis said if “this unfair route” is followed, women can’t serve as judges if their husbands have successful law practices.
“My husband has dealt with every major defense firm in the state and hundreds of defense attorneys,” she said. “It would be virtually impossible for me to serve on any case at any time if I had to recuse myself from any case involving any person with whom my husband has ever had a business transaction.
“Not only was the story not fair, but the way ABC News presented themselves was beneath contempt.”
Davis said that when the network originally contacted the high court, it was told they were doing a story about nursing home cases.
A producer then called to say Ross wanted to talk to Davis about one case in particular and would be coming to Charleston for an interview.
“For 18 years I have had a policy of not discussing cases,” Davis said. “The court speaks through its opinions. That’s what I instructed my public information officer to tell Brian Ross when he arrived.”
At first, she said, the crew staked out the parking lot in hopes of ambushing her. But later came upstairs to the door outside the justices’ chamber and demanded to see her. Davis arrived at work early that day.
“I admit that the West Virginia girl in me refused to be bullied,” Davis said. “They had not made an appointment and they were rude and condescending to my security staff.
“I told the court’s public information officer again to tell Brian Ross that I was not going to discuss any case and that the court speaks through its opinions. When she did that, he said, ‘Yes, I’m sure. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.’”
That’s when she and the court staff discovered the real reason for the crew’s visit, Davis said.
“If he had just told us what he wanted in advance, we could have sat down and had a civil discussion,” she said. “They even tried to ambush my husband in a similar manner by hiding in cars.
“Both Scott and I did eventually answer ABC News’ questions when the questioners were less aggressive and underhanded.”
Davis said she staunchly believes in freedom of the press.
“I am an absolute defender of all press freedoms, and I believe fully I have done my best to be as accessible as I can be in my public position,” she said.