CBSN

Orrin Hatch: Some Lawyers, He Likes

Sen. Orrin Hatch (GOP, Utah)
AP
Despite a history of deriding trial lawyers, incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch has collected nearly $200,000 in campaign donations from a group of attorneys he helped in their battle for fees for suing the major tobacco companies.

Hatch twice went to bat for the group. In 1998, he helped fend off an attempt to cap attorneys' fees at $4,000 an hour. And in 2001, the Utah Republican testified on their behalf before a panel that awarded lawyers $1.25 billion for their work on a case related to California's tobacco suit.

A judge in New York threw out the award, but that decision is being appealed by the Castano Group, a coalition of attorneys, mostly from Louisiana, who specialize in class action lawsuits. They banded together in 1996 to take on the tobacco industry.

Celia Wexler, research director for the public interest group Common Cause, said the Castano Group's tactics seem to be a "road map" for influencing public policy. Most of their contributions to Hatch came within months of his advocacy on their behalf.

"We can't read people's minds or hearts," she said. "But what we can say is (this) is very much how you play the game in Washington."

But Kenneth M. Carter, a New Orleans attorney, said he worked on the tobacco litigation because his mother, a lifelong smoker, died of lung cancer, and he gave to Hatch because of the senator's stand on tobacco.

"I think the record will show that he was on the right side of the biggest public health issue we were involved in," Carter said.

"Senator Hatch does what is right and what he believes in no matter who contributes to him," Hatch spokeswoman Heather Barney said. "It's natural when someone agrees with Senator Hatch and the positions he takes that they would donate to him."

Overall, lawyers and law firms have been Hatch's top contributors since 1997, donating $457,782 to his campaigns, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. They also have given at least $132,000 more through a soft-money account. Minimal reporting requirements make pegging a precise figure difficult.

Hatch's contributions are small compared with the $9 million lawyers gave to Democratic senators since 2000. They gave $2.6 million to Republican senators.

But Hatch, who resumes the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee this month, is among the top Republican recipients of lawyers' contributions. Almost one-third of his donations have come from the Castano Group.

Barney and those familiar with Hatch's record say the Castano case is not indicative of his position on tort reform or issues of interest to lawyers.

"Sometimes he's been with them when they're right, but he also disagrees with them when they're wrong," she said.

The Castano Group pioneered tobacco litigation, filing class-action lawsuits in 26 states, including one on behalf of then-California Lt. Gov. Gray Davis that was related to California's state case.

The group has not won a case, although two are pending.

But when 40 state attorneys general settled their lawsuits against the tobacco industry, the Castano attorneys wanted a share of the attorneys' fees for helping California win $25 billion.

In 1998, as the Senate crafted federal legislation to mirror the state settlement, Castano attorneys advised Hatch daily, said John Coale, a leading member of the group. Hatch advocated including them in the fee distribution and praised the attorneys on the Senate floor.

During debate on the federal bill in May and June 1998, Hatch helped defeat three bids to cap the hourly attorneys' fees for all of the attorneys in the litigation.

While noting that the Castano lawyers are mostly "liberal Democrats," he said politics should not play a part in the debate.

"Without the Castano group, we would not be debating this issue," he said. "We should think twice before we move toward having the Congress of the United States set attorneys' fees."

The Senate ultimately defeated the tobacco bill.

Without congressional action, the tobacco companies and states agreed to allow a three-member panel to decide how much should be paid in attorneys fees. Castano lawyers told the panel in February 2001 that their early litigation made the ultimate tobacco settlement possible. Helping make their case in testimony via teleconference was Hatch. The panel awarded the Castano group $1.25 billion.

Within three months of Hatch's testimony, lawyers from the Castano Group contributed $121,000 to his soft-money political action committee, the Campaign for America's Future, according to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Another $17,000 went directly to Hatch's campaign in May 2001.

By Robert Gehrke