Like most Republican politicians these days, especially those who are mentioned as possible presidential candidates, Gov. Mike Huckabee has bad things to say about trial lawyers, calling them “greedy” and “scammers,” among other things. According to a group of Little Rock lawyers, Huckabee has gone beyond insult to absolute injury, leaving them lighter in the pocketbook with nothing to show for it.
When Huckabee was running for re-election in 2002, he contacted Gary Holt, a prominent Little Rock trial lawyer, through a mutual friend. Holt was on vacation in Florida at the time. Huckabee’s call was prompted by contributions made by trial lawyers to Huckabee’s opponent, Democrat Jimmie Lou Fisher. It was well known at the time that the 2003 legislature would take up “tort reform,” a popular issue with Republicans nationwide, and decidedly unpopular with trial lawyers.
“He said he was not the enemy, and would I meet with him,” Holt says. “He gave assurances that he was not anti-consumer. He said he thought the only thing needed in the way of tort reform was a limit on punitive damages. He said he was sympathetic to plaintiffs because he’d been through a lawsuit himself [involving an automobile accident a few years earlier].” Huckabee also said there was no point in giving money to Fisher because she wasn’t going to win.
Holt called three lawyer friends in Little Rock — Bud Whetstone, Charles A. Banks (a Republican and former U.S. attorney) and Gary Green. The four met with Huckabee.
Whetstone says that Huckabee said he was sympathetic on tort reform, that he knew the tort system wasn’t out of control, as tort- reform advocates claimed. He did not promise to stop all tort reform, Whetstone says, but “He said he was sympathetic to people that had to sue, that he understood the plight of poor people, that everyday people needed protection from companies that treated them the way he’d been treated in his lawsuit. I knew that he’d also filed a lawsuit against a newspaper over an article about his son, so it made sense to me that he was contacting us.”
The lawyers contributed at least $1,000 each to Huckabee’s campaign, although Holt thinks he may have given $2,000. Whetstone says that at the time, other lawyers told him that Huckabee was only taking their money, that the four were babes in the woods compared to Huckabee, who was known to have a keen eye for a dollar. (He was trained as a Baptist preacher, and if there’s any sharper dealer than a lawyer, it’s a Baptist preacher.)
When tort reform came before the legislature, the bill went far beyond a simple limit on punitive damages. Holt says it gutted the rights of common people to sue for damages. “It’s welfare for the wealthy, and Huckabee did nothing to stop it,” Holt says. “It’s our understanding that privately, he said ‘Full speed ahead.’ I ended up feeling badly that I got my friends to donate money to somebody who was not what he professed to be.”
Banks is not as eager to talk about the incident as Holt and Whetstone, but he says he doesn’t remember any commitment made by Huckabee. “Could the governor have gotten more involved [in opposition to tort reform]? I suppose so. But I don’t take issue to the same extent they [Holt and Whetstone] do.” Green did not respond. Neither did Huckabee.
Whetstone said he was embarrassed to go public with the story, because of having given money to Huckabee: “It’s a dark period in my life.” But with Huckabee being discussed as a presidential candidate, Whetstone said he thought the story should be told.
Holt said he and Whetstone find some humor in the situation. “Because we made that contribution, we get all these letters about tort reform, and soliciting our support of good Republican candidates who support tort reform.”
Whetstone furnished a letter he received from Huckabee in September 2004 endorsing state Rep. Marvin Parks for Congress against U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder. Parks was a sponsor of the tort reform bill. In the letter, Huckabee said:
“I’d rather have a congressman that led the effort for limiting the runaway cash awards pushed by greedy trial lawyers who got a big cut of the awards supposedly going to help ‘poor and injured’ people and who are giving Vic Snyder most of his campaign money. … Frankly, the trial lawyers have more money than you or me, and they will spend whatever they need in order to keep Vic Snyder, because they know that if Marvin Parks is in Congress [Parks was defeated], the scam is over and the wheels of their ‘gravy train’ will be derailed.”
Frankly, the trial lawyers have a little less money after their experience with Huckabee. “If there’s an expert on scams and gravy trains, Huckabee is the guy,” Whetstone says.