Friday, August 22, 2014

Legal follies make great stories | Last Word

Two San Antonio lawyers made news last week in ways that took me down memory lane and reminded me of what a wonderful city this is for people in my line of work. 

In one of the stories, veteran Express-News reporter John MacCormack detailed allegations regarding attorney Andrew Toscano. 

Toscano is accused of unethically representing both the driver in a one-car accident and the passenger who was injured.

Toscano allegedly attempted to hide his involvement on both sides of the controversy by referring the passenger to a lawyer who offices with him and is listed on his firm’s letterhead.

A filing in the case argues that this lawyer had no involvement in the case, but was just a “ghost” for Toscano himself.

I won’t go into the nasty details except to say that Toscano sort of denied the allegations, reminding MacCormack of the old legal saw that “allegations do not amount to evidence.”

The story reminded me of another old saw, the one about sparing the rod.

Back in 2000 I covered a legal proceeding in which Toscano and another young lawyer were found to have assisted their boss – a prominent plaintiff’s attorney named Robert Kugle – in suing DaimlerChrysler for $2 billion over what they claimed was a manufacturing defect that led to a horrible accident.

They later said they would have settled for only $75 million, of which they would have received 40 percent as their fee.

But the suit was found to be knowingly based on a falsified accident report.

This led District Judge David Peeples to level a fine of $865,000 against Kugle and the two young lawyers.

The judge also formally referred the matter to the State Bar of Texas for disciplinary action.

Kugle fled to Mexico and was disbarred.

But Toscano and the other young associate were, amazingly, given private reprimands.

Not only was this punishment absurdly light, but it was absurd as a State Bar response to a widely-publicized scandal.

It was a statement that the public didn’t even need to know that the Bar thought the two lawyers might have done anything wrong.

Years later, under pressure from DaimlerChrysler, the Bar reopened the case.

This time the State Bar imposed a tougher sanction – but not much tougher.

In 2006 it suspended both lawyers for two years – but probated the sentence.

In other words, they wouldn’t miss a day’s work unless they got into more trouble.

In the other story, columnist Gilbert Garcia reported that San Antonio lawyer and one-time high-flying lobbyist W. James Jonas III is now both the city attorney and city manager for Crystal City.

At a salary of $216,000.

That’s nearly $30 each for every man, woman and child living in the town of 7,200.

As Garcia pointed out, it’s also about three times the total paid to the previous city manager and city attorney, and nearly half the town’s property tax receipts.

Once again, it provoked memories – this time of a contract for a government attorney that wasn’t quite as rich, but was even more outrageous.

In 1998, the South San school board hired an attorney with a thin resume.

Arthur Augustine was only six years out of law school and had no experience in the specialized field of school law.

He was, however, the personal attorney for the newest school board member.

The board said it was hiring him to save money, though his $150 hourly fee was $50 more than the experienced firm he replaced.

More disturbing were job security provisions.

The five-year contract provided only three reasons for dismissal: fraud, a felony conviction, or continually failing to perform his duties.

If he was fired for any other reason he had to be paid for the remainder of the contract at a rate of what he had billed up to that point.

And if they wanted to change lawyers after five years, the district had to give him six months’ notice and a severance of half his last year’s earnings.

He was replaced nine months later.

He didn’t sue.

Apparently, he sought the advice of a more experienced lawyer.

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