A Dinner, a Memo and a Gusher of Texas Law Money

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Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore

Trial lawyers, long a cornerstone of Democratic fund-raising, have outdone themselves for Al Gore's presidential race. Even before the successful Democratic convention in August, they had given $7 million to the party's campaign committees. No surprise given Gore's consistent opposition to federal legislation that would limit court awards to victims of corporate negligence.

But roll back to fall 1995 when Republicans, in fresh control of both houses of Congress, were fashioning such tort-reform legislation. President Clinton, trying to position himself between the GOP and liberal Democrats as he prepared for his 1996 reelection campaign, alarmed the trial bar with talk of compromise. "He did indicate his willingness to sign a bill that met certain parameters," says Fred Baron, a Texan who is president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

At the time Clinton and Gore had committed themselves to raising $3 million for an end-of-the-year burst of campaign TV ads. On Nov. 28, 1995, Gore flew to Houston for a intimate fund-raising dinner at the home of high-profile trial lawyer John Eddie Williams. His guests included attorneys who have made fortunes representing individuals claiming harm from asbestos, tobacco and other products.

Two days later, the vice president was given memos by a Democratic National Committee staffer, Erica Payne, suggesting follow-up calls to some of the Texas lawyers who attended the dinner. Among the names was Walter Umphrey of Beaumont, who made his fortune suing asbestos manufacturers and was the lead lawyer for the state of Texas in its suit against the tobacco industry. (He would later share $3.3 billion in attorneys' fees when the suit settled in 1998.) Umphrey is described in the memo as "close to" Williams, who hosted the event, although it is not clear that he was at the dinner. Regardless, the memo suggested asking Umphrey for $100,000 to help pay for the TV buys, noting that "Walter is closely following tort reform."

Just how closely was made clear in a similar memo two weeks later to DNC chairman Don Fowler from party staffer Payne. The memo, obtained by TIME, provided a suggested script for Fowler to use in his call to Umphrey: "Sorry you missed the Vice President: I know [you] will give $100K when the President vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now. Please send ASAP if possible."

Fowler's lawyer, James Hamilton, said in an interview that "Don does not recall placing the call to him, talking to him or seeing the call sheet." Umphrey did not return a call seeking comment. In any case, he did not contribute immediately. Payne's lawyer, Thomas Dwyer, said she did not intend to suggest a quid pro quo between the president's veto and a contribution.

He waited until the tort reform bill reached a crucial moment — the day the legislation went to Clinton's desk. His firm, Provost & Umphrey, contributed $7,500 on April 30, 1996. The President vetoed the legislation two days later, May 2. On July 17, the firm gave another $30,000 to the DNC, with $10,000 more coming in the fall. In the 1998 midterm elections, as Clinton's impeachment hung in the balance, Provost & Umphrey donated more than $260,000 to Democratic Party committees. And so far in this election, it has written checks totaling $420,000 to the party.

Gore's office said that the vice-president appears not to have made the late November call to Umphrey, but that in any case the two did not speak. Gore spokesman Jim Kennedy noted that the memos have long been in the possession of both Capitol Hill investigators and the Justice Department's campaign finance task force. "Republicans and others have had this for more than 1,000 days," Kennedy said. "No one found it interesting till 1,000 hours before the election."

But one informed source said the task force only recently discovered the memo to Fowler.