A huge cache of documents made public during the state attorneys general litigation against the tobacco industry in the late 1990s revealed that this firm, which for decades represented the tobacco industry, was an early force behind the “tort reform” movement. Big Tobacco would funnel money to tort reform groups through Covington. The point was to pass laws to keep cigarette companies from ever being sued in court for promoting addiction through manipulation of nicotine levels, engaging in a secret campaign to hook teens and even pre-teens and lying to government officials and the public. A Covington partner named Keith A. Teel was the firm’s tobacco point man and even boasted about setting up “tort reform” groups with tobacco money. (See much more here.)
In addition to the release of millions of documents, the state tobacco litigation resulted in a $200 billion settlement. The settlement reimbursed 46 states for costs dealing with one of the biggest public health disasters in modern times. To get this incredible result, the states all used outside law firms, who worked for years without pay and risked being paid nothing at all. (Or as a plaintiff law firm might have put it, “the attendant risk that we might receive no fee whatsoever, and dedicated efforts by our team in hard-fought, complex litigation lasting over … years.” Emphasis so you’ll remember this.)
As to the fees they were ultimately paid in the tobacco case:
Many retainer agreements between AGs and private firms were made public, usually showing a standard contingency fee of around 15 percent, lower than typical 1/3 arrangements, despite the huge risks and the small likelihood of a plaintiff win. Yet when the industry began to settle these cases, most private counsel gave up the contracted fee and amiably agreed, along with the tobacco industry, to arbitrated fee decisions. In announcing the first fee award to attorneys in Florida, Texas and Mississippi in December 1998, to be paid by the tobacco companies over a minimum of 10 years, labor mediator and panel Chairman John Calhoun Wells said, “[N]otwithstanding all the efforts by individuals who committed years of their lives to achieving progress on this issue, without these outside counsel, there would be no multibillion-dollar settlements for the states to reimburse tobacco-related health expenses and provide funds for educational efforts to reduce youth smoking.”
Looping back to Covington & Burling. In 1996, Covington’s Keith Teel met with Texas Attorney General Dan Morales to try to derail the Texas AG’s tobacco suit altogether (which no doubt included payment of attorneys’ fees that came out of the industry’s pocket). Fortunately Texas ignored him, and the industry ultimately paid the state $15 billion.
Covington’s attacks on lawsuits and those who use the civil justice system didn’t end in the 1990s, however. Lately, one of their partners and Trump advisor, Phil Howard, has made a name for himself “attacking corporate regulations and the civil jury system [by] using inflammatory stereotypes about public protection laws and attorneys for the injured to deflect attention from the misdeeds of those he defends.” For example,
As for sexual harassment claims? Barring some overt form of ‘quid pro quo,” (presumably a promotion conditioned on a sexual favor would qualify) Howard would prohibit those too. If "just offensive comments," are at issue, says Howard, women should simply embrace the laws of the locker room and get over it. The alternative, he says, would kill "the spontaneity needed" for a “healthy” work environment.
He also derides laws that permit civil rights lawyers to be paid.
So pardon my shock when I read this story:
Covington & Burling LLP came under fire March 5 for a $125 million fee it received to represent the state of Minnesota in its $5 billion environmental lawsuit against 3M Co., which settled Feb. 20 for $850 million.
At a March 5 Minnesota House Ways and Means Committee hearing, state Rep. Sarah Anderson (R) questioned the Big Law firm’s contingency arrangement with the state, reached in 2010.
“I’m just curious as to why we are paying a law firm $125 million for seven years of work,” she said. Referring to her own math, she said the sum works out to about $48,000 per day. “That seems a little steep.” She also said all the legal fees are being shipped outside the state because Covington doesn’t have an office in Minnesota.
“Covington has represented the State of Minnesota in environmental matters for more than 20 years, including the NRD [3M] litigation that was recently resolved. Our work on the NRD case involved a contingency fee arrangement, the attendant risk that we might receive no fee whatsoever, and dedicated efforts by our team in hard-fought, complex litigation lasting over seven years,” a Covington spokesman told Big Law Business in an email.
Hoping that sounds familiar.
We’ve covered a lot of hypocrites in our day, but this one may take the cake.