June 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 6
P o w e r S t r u g g l e s
A handful of conservative state legal officials devised a highly marketable
idea in 1999. They decided to raise lots of money to elect more attorneys
general who like themselves are reluctant to sue big business.
Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor said that he conceived the Republican
Attorneys General Association (RAGA) as a way to combat the alliances
that some state attorneys general formed with private lawyers to sue the
Two years ago, I warned
that the lawsuits filed by my fellow
state attorneys general against the tobacco industry threatened the entire
business community, Pryor told the Civil Justice Reform Group in
Washington, D.C. in December 1999.
Since then, the legal landscape has deteriorated to the point that,
with municipalities and states suing the firearms and paint industries
and the federal government suing the tobacco industry, Pryor said,
there are a growing number of novel government suits against entire
industries. No industry is safe.
To curb such lawsuit abuse, Pryor said, the business
community must be engaged heavily in the election process as it affects
legal and judicial offices.
Toward that end, Pryor plugged RAGA, the organization that he helped
found and currently leads.
Legal Defense Fund
Other RAGA founders share Pryors concern about trial lawyers (who
are major Democratic donors) suing tobacco companies (which are big GOP
donors). One factor that may have spurred the formation of this partisan
group in 1999 was the fact that the non-partisan National Association
of Attorneys General was then headed by Democratic Mississippi Attorney
General Mike Moore. Moore launched the once-quixotic state tobacco litigation
that is now paying states around the nation $246 billion.
RAGAs first chairman, South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon,
was an early critic of the tobacco litigation, though he eventually hopped
on to the gravy train when it became clear how much money was available.
Condon also dropped South Carolinas Microsoft case in December 1998
just months after Microsoft gave $20,000 to that states Republican
PAC. That donation was one of the largest that Condons state party
had ever received. Microsoft also gave Condons campaign $3,500 after
he dropped the Microsoft suit.
Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg is another latecomer to the tobacco
lawsuit who has experience with money scandals. Before he joined RAGA,
Stenberg received $15,000 from Nebraskas Vopnford family
including $1,000 from 12-year-old Leif Vopnford. Stenberg was not among
five state attorneys general who sued the Vopnfords company, Thousand
Adventures, in the mid-1990s. After Thousand Adventures took $420 million
from people who bought into a time-share camping scheme, the company closed
two-thirds of its 58-campground empire and let others go to seed, eventually
prompting the attorneys general suit.
Texas Attorney General John Cornyn also is a harsh critic of the $17
billion tobacco lawsuit that his Democratic predecessor filed. Cornyn
wrote in a fundraising solicitation last year that RAGA was born
out of concerns arising out of the industry-wide lawsuits that seek to
promote public policy changes via the courthouse rather than the statehouse.
Cornyn added, Some of the attorneys general of other states in the
wake of the tobacco litigation, have created a wish list for future mass
state lawsuits car rental companies, pharmaceutical firms, makers
of lead paint and gun manufacturers.
This is absolutely an effort by people with special interests to
stop attorneys general from pursuing their traditional role as protectors
of the public interest, says Scott Harshbarger, the former Democratic
attorney general of Massachusetts who now heads Common Cause.
Democrats are not alone in their criticism of RAGA. I try to keep
politics out of my business as attorney general, Pennsylvanias
Republican Attorney General Mike Fisher told the Washington Post when
asked why he did not join RAGA.
Were a family, and families can disagree, Grant Woods,
a former Republican attorney general of Arizona told the National Association
of Attorneys General convention last year. But dont do this.
It is hard to pin down exactly who is a member of RAGA. Executive Director
Tim Barnes insists there is no formal membership roll, but that all Republican
attorneys general are members.
However, when questioned, many Republican attorneys general insist that
they are not members. Current RAGA officers are Bill Pryor of Alabama,
John Cornyn of Texas, Mark Earley of Virginia, M. Jane Brady of Delaware,
Charlie Condon of South Carolina, Don Stenberg of Nebraska and Gay Woodhouse
Microsoft, which is defending itself from antitrust charges filed by
the attorneys general of the United States and 23 states, also sent representatives
to the Austin RAGA conference. It has acknowledged contributing at least
$10,000 to RAGAs war chest.
Austin RAGA conference participants who contributed at least $5,000 were
originally scheduled to attend an opening reception at then-Governor George
W. Bushs governors state mansion. But this event was cancelled
the day that reporters questioned Bushs office about RAGAs
stealth fundraising tactics.
This much larger PAC does report its expenditures and contributions.
But neither RNSEC nor RAGA will reveal which of the $162 million in contributions
that RNSEC received in the 2000 election cycle belong to RAGA. Philip
Morris and the National Rifle Association are two of RNSECs top
donors. Georgetown University election law specialist Roy Schotland has
said that RAGAs fundraising scheme is practically akin to money
Well over a year after he mailed his RAGA fundraising solicitation, Cornyn
was asked at the University of Texas Law School about why the RAGA donors
that he solicited have not been disclosed.
The organization that you are referring to solicits money, and
Im really not sure who that is thats solicited, he said
in April 2001.
Reminded that he himself had done the soliciting, Cornyn replied, It
was a very broad-reaching letter. The fact is that the receipt of those
funds is duly recorded in compliance with all applicable laws and so I
dont understand your point about nondisclosure.
Cornyn also defended the practice by saying, No one can point to
a single example in which that [RAGA fundraising] has compromised my professional
In fact, questions have been raised about Cornyns RAGA fundraising
and his professional judgment. In April 2000, Cornyn settled a lawsuit,
filed by his predecessor, alleging that Aetna U.S. Healthcare offered
doctors incentives to withhold medically necessary care. Cornyn allowed
Aetna to settle the suit without paying a dime. In the year prior to the
Cornyns settlement, Aetna contributed $75,000 to the PAC that launders
RAGAs money. None of the parties involved would disclose if Aetna
had earmarked these funds for RAGA.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control calls lead the nations top
environmental health threat to kids. Four percent of all pre-schoolers
have high enough blood-lead levels to reduce intelligence and cause brain
damage. Most of this exposure occurs when kids ingest dust from deteriorating
lead paint, which the government banned for residential use in 1978.
While numerous local governments have filed such lawsuits, Rhode Island
is the first state to do so. Whitehouses office says that it has
been contacted by 15 other states that are exploring similar suits. Citing
standard protocol, Whitehouses office would not identify which attorneys
general have called.
Given RAGAs condemnation of industry-wide lawsuits, it would be
interesting to know if any RAGA members were among those investigating
the possibility of a suit against the lead paint industry.
The actions or inactions of Alabamas Pryor and Texass
Cornyn are particularly intriguing since both of these attorneys general
specifically have cited lead-paint lawsuits as an example of the kind
of litigation that prompted them to found RAGA in the first place.
Cornyns position is even more interesting because a leading defendant
in Rhode Islands lawsuit is NL Industries, which is controlled by
Dallas corporate raider Harold Simmons. Simmons is a major donor to Republican
PACs and candidates. He gave $90,000 to George W. Bushs two gubernatorial
campaigns and has given Cornyn $31,000 since 1998.
As the producer of the lead pigment that was added to many brands of
paint, NL Industries has lobbied to limit its potential liabilities. Prior
to joining Bushs cabinet, Interior Secretary Gale Norton lobbied
state and federal officials on lead paint issues for Simmons NL.
In fact, visitor logs reveal that Norton lobbied Cornyns office
on this issue on May 19, 1999.
In another eye-popping link, since RAGAs creation in 1999, Simmons
two main holding companies, Contran and Valhi, have contributed $350,000
to the Republican PAC that launders RAGAs money. RNSEC received
another $211,000 since RAGAs creation from other companies that
are defendants in the Rhode Island suit. This includes $201,000 from ARCO
(and ARCO chairman emeritus Lodwrick Cook) and $10,000 from DuPont.
The lead industrys potential liability is far greater in Texas
than Rhode Island. An Environmental Defense report ranks Texas seventh
nationally in the number of its housing units that face elevated lead
risks (180,000 units). Texas has eight times more of these housing units
than does thirty-seventh ranked Rhode Island.
A Cornyn spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News in April 2001 that
his office is monitoring the Rhode Island litigation and will decide in
the future whether or not to follow suit.
Noting that he had not discussed the case with Cornyn, Harold Simmons said, I would certainly hope he wouldnt join the suit, because it is a bad case.
Multinational Monitor Contributing Writer Andrew Wheat works for Austin-based Texans for Public Justice, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that follows money in Texas politics.