CHARLESTON – Look for more advertising from a political action committee funded primarily by West Virginia trial lawyers before the state Supreme Court race is over.
Last week, the Just Courts For West Virginia PAC hit the airwaves with an advertisement linking state Supreme Court candidate Beth Walker to Don Blankenship, the former Massey Energy CEO who recently was convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety laws related to the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in Raleigh County that left 29 miners dead.
“I don’t want to reveal the overall strategy of the group,” said Mike Plante, who serves as general consultant to the Just Courts PAC. “I’d rather let that unfold organically.”
The first round of the group’s anti-Walker ad, which can be seen online, aired in the Charleston-Huntington, Clarksburg and Beckley markets, according to Federal Communications Commission documents.
Walker’s campaign has said the ad includes “false claims based on misleading evidence,” noting that Walker met with Blankenship once in 2008 during her first state Supreme Court campaign.
According to campaign expenditure documents, the Just Courts For WV PAC lists donations from the following law firms: Bordas & Bordas in Wheeling ($100,000), Bailey Javins & Carter in Charleston ($50,000), Farmer Cline & Campbell in Charleston ($50,000), Hill Peterson Carper Bee & Deitzler ($25,000), McHugh Fuller Law Group in Mississippi ($25,000), Tiano O'Dell in Charleston ($25,000), Goldberg Persky & White in Pittsburgh ($20,000), Baron & Budd in Texas ($5,000) and Allan N. Karlin and Associates in Morgantown ($4,000).
Plante, who owns the consulting firm of Plante & Associates, explained the origins of the PAC.
“All of the people supporting the PAC are included in the disclosure,” he said. “There are a number of people who are concerned that the same forces that came together in 2004 for the exclusive purpose of buying a seat on the Supreme Court are coming together again to coalesce around a candidate.
"And, tons of their money is coming from out of state.”
The executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said the Just Courts PAC is another example of trial lawyers trying to influence an election.
“The millionaire personal injury lawyers who are driven by lawsuit greed are once again using their litigation riches in an attempt to buy an election,” Roman Stauffer said. “They poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into legislative races in 2014 and voters rejected their ‘sue and settle’ candidates.
“They spent thousands of dollars earlier this year to help Justice Brent Benjamin and Bill Wooton qualify for a taxpayer funded political campaign.”
Plante, however, again referred to the 2004 state Supreme Court race, which was the most expensive and possibly the nastiest court race in state history.
“Back in 2004, Blankenship spent $3 million of his own money on the court race while having a $50 case before the state Supreme Court,” said Plante, who has worked on Democratic campaigns in 44 states since 1988. “It established a precedent in West Virginia that ended up being played out before the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of recusal, and at least one book was written based on it.
“So again, when you see a lot of the same architects who supported that effort supporting another similar effort, it’s a cause for concern.”
Plante said Walker’s campaign is well-funded, and outside groups – such as the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce – also are spending money to support her.
“Beth Walker and her surrogates have spent $1.8 million,” he said. “And, they will spend more. Their dollars are disproportionally from out of state. We have some from out of state as well, but nothing like theirs.”
Stauffer noted the two out-of-state firms on the Just Courts donor list.
“It’s not surprising, but nonetheless greatly troubling, that the Mississippi-based law firm (McHugh Fuller) that was involved in the Lear Jet Justice scandal is on the list,” Stauffer said. “The main lawyer at that firm spent over $1 million to purchase a Lear jet from Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis’ husband.
“On top of that, they raised nearly $40,000 in contributions from mostly out-of-state donors for Justice Davis’ re-election campaign. Incredibly this all took place when a case with an initial $90 million verdict was making its way to the state Supreme Court. Ultimately, Justice Davis served as chief justice and authored the court’s opinion that led to the Lear Jet Justice law firm making over seventeen million on the case.”
He also mentioned Baron & Budd, which has been described as one of the largest personal injury law firms in the United States.
“The firm has connections to the notorious Garlock Sealing Technology litigation and bankruptcy case where broad-based misrepresentations in asbestos claims by personal injury lawyers was brought to light,” Stauffer said.
“These personal injury lawyers, many from out-of-state, are driven by lawsuit greed. And they’ve gotten rich from our ‘jackpot justice’ court system, causing most West Virginians to pay higher prices for goods, lose out on access to important medical and community services and go without good job opportunities.
“We will continue to shine a light on greedy personal injury lawyer spending and money-influence and let voters know who is behind these efforts and which candidates they support. West Virginia is not for sale.”