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When St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon picked a friend to handle the city's lawsuit against the lead-paint industry, his political rivals hit the roof. A clear payback to a financial contributor, they charged -- one that ran afoul of an ordinance requiring competitive bids for professional contracts.
Among Harmon's critics: Francis Slay, then president of the city's Board of Aldermen.
Under attack, Harmon backed away from his unilateral appointment of lawyer John Frank and agreed to take competitive bids.
Frank still got the job.
Not only was he a Harmon supporter, Frank was more than qualified to do the job. A plaintiffs' lawyer for about 40 years, Frank put together a team that included his firm, the John J. Frank Partnership, Houston-based Fleming & Associates and St. Louis lawyer Richard Banks of Banks & Associates.
That was January 2000.
Seven months later, Frank was found dead of natural causes in his condo, the Harmon administration was on political life support and Francis Slay was the odds-on favorite to become the city's next mayor.
Enter St. Louis lawyer Michael Garvin.
Just before Frank died, Garvin says, Frank asked him to join the lead-paint lawsuit. Garvin was hired as an associate in Frank's firm. At the same time, Garvin was a law partner to Tom Carnahan, son of Gov. Mel Carnahan. Their firm, Carnahan Garvin LLC, leased office space from Guilfoil, Petzall & Shoemake -- the firm where Slay practiced before he was elected mayor. Garvin says he's "always" been a supporter of Slay's, and his firm has been a campaign contributor.
After Frank died and just weeks before Slay won the primary, Fleming & Associates decided to keep Garvin, and Carnahan Garvin LLC officially entered the case. Appearing alongside Michael Garvin was another lawyer in his firm, Patricia Hageman. (Just a few months later, Slay named Hageman city counselor.)
Unlike John Frank's firm, Carnahan Garvin didn't have to go through any bid process to get a piece of the city's potentially lucrative lawsuit. And unlike John Frank's firm, Carnahan Garvin was hired without any controversy.
The original contract with the city -- approved by a committee picked by Harmon, Slay and Comptroller Darlene Green -- allowed Frank and the other original firms to recruit additional lawyers without first getting permission from the city. Says Garvin: "I don't have a contract with the city because my arrangements are through the Fleming firm."
It's not clear whether Garvin and Carnahan have any particular legal experience that make the lawyers critical to the case. Asked why he was brought on board, Garvin says, "I used to work at the city counselor's office, and I had experience in complex and equity litigation with the city."
A spokesperson for the Houston firm says, in an e-mail, that Garvin was hired "because he was a good lawyer. He knows all the trial judges and he was the best man for the job." Having local counsel who also has ties to City Hall probably didn't hurt. And after Slay took office, Fleming & Associates made a contribution to Slay's campaign committee.
A spokesman for Slay did not return phone calls asking about Carnahan Garvin's involvement in the suit.
The city's lead-paint lawsuit names eleven defendants, including paint manufacturers; the Lead Industry Association, a trade association; and St. Louis-based Doe Run Company, the nation's number-one lead producer. The case claims that the companies -- and their predecessor firms -- knew as early as 1904 that lead paint is toxic and that even though study after study confirmed the hazards, the defendants continued to aggressively sell lead paint, especially in urban areas.
The city contends the defendants are responsible for creating a public nuisance that has poisoned thousands of residents, causing mental impairment and other health problems. The defendants, the city argues, should be held responsible for the costs of removing lead paint, poison testing and medical care.
The amount of damages being claimed isn't identified in the city's suit, and Rob Herring of Fleming & Associates refuses to give a ballpark figure. "It's substantial" is all he'll allow.
Garvin says the case could easily be worth more than $10 million to the city. "But the manufacturers say it isn't worth anything," he adds.
What is clear is that the lawyers stand to make lots of money if a jury sides with the city.
In the agreement signed by the city, the John J. Frank Partnership, Banks & Associates and Fleming & Associates, the attorneys agreed to a fee of 15 percent of the net proceeds if the case is settled before trial. If the case is settled after the trial starts, the fee jumps to 18 percent. If the city doesn't get anything, neither do the lawyers.
The agreement also requires the lawyers to front the expenses on the case. For a suit involving several defendants and decades of lead-paint exposure, the costs could reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. But if it's successful, the payout could be enormous.
Herring and Garvin won't say how the fees would be split among the lawyers if they win. Banks did not return phone messages.
"That part of the deal is somewhat confidential," Herring says. However, the firm that stands to gain the most from the St. Louis case is Fleming & Associates.
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