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Millions Funnelled to Bush Via Phony Grassroots Groups

by Katherine Lemons

Hidden behind "tort reform" groups are giants like Philip Morris, Dow Chemical, Exxon, General Electric
George W. Bush does not forget a favor. Especially when it bears an extraordinarily large price tag. So when a coalition of surreptitiously corporate-funded "tort reform" groups posing as grassroots organizations gave him millions of dollars for his first gubernatorial race, he did not hesitate to return the favor.

While Bush was governor of Texas, he enacted numerous bills to support these so-called "Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse" (CALA) groups, whose goals are to protect corporations from costly and embarrassing class action lawsuits. The messy details of the underhanded deals have just been released in a new report by the Center for Justice & Democracy and Public Citizen. The report explains how CALAs funneled money from big business -- giants like Philip Morris, Dow Chemical, Exxon, General Electric, Aetna, Geico and Nationwide -- to support covert agendas, among them the buying of George W. Bush. To this day, some of Bush's largest cash cows are these corporate-funded CALAs.

CALAs, which are nationally coordinated, locally run groups, work to shield corporations from lawsuits by getting "tort reforms" passed. Tort reforms limit a citizen's ability to file class action lawsuits against corporations by placing caps on damages and preventing lawyers from taking cases without charging an up-front fee, severely limiting the options of poor clients who rely on settlements to pay lawyers. Their main weapon is the media, where they put out advertisements about the supposed evils of class actions lawsuits.

"At its core, the CALA message equates 'lawsuit abuse' with the efforts of injured consumers seeking to recover damages from those responsible. More broadly, the message is based on falsehoods that the legal system has spun "out-of-control," wrote co-authors Joanne Doroshow, director of the Center for Justice & Democracy and Carl Deal, investigative reporter, in the report.

In addition to buying airtime, tort reformers also buy politicians. Individuals and organizations affliated with two Texas tort reform groups gave between $4.1 and $4.5 million to George W. Bush's two gubernatorial campaigns, comprising 15 percent of the total contributions. Beholden to the special interest groups for his victories, Bush wasted no time waiting to repay them upon his arrival in office. According to the report, "Over his two terms, Bush signed a series of brutal bills that severely reduced injured consumers' rights, greatly reducing liability risks for Texas corporations."

Bush still receives financial and personnel support from CALAs and CALA affiliates. Ralph Wayne, the executive director of the Texas Civil Justice League, the oldest "tort reform" lobby group in the state, co-chairs Bush's presidential campaign. At least 75 percent of the League's members have contributed to the campaign.

In what the report implies is an obvious quid pro quo for all that financial support, Bush has dragged tort reform into his 2000 Presidential Race. Doroshow commented that while tort reform is not a pressing issue in the eyes of the greater American public, "Bush is making it an issue because it is important to big business ... and because his funders want him to."

The Tort Reform Craze
The tort reform craze began in the mid-1980s when insurance companies, due to mismanagement, significantly increased the premiums on policies they provided to businesses, doctors and non-profit groups, among others. The insurance companies blamed the increase on superfluous lawsuits, and in 1986, they gathered together hundreds of U.S. and foreign corporations in the development of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), an organization devoted to limiting the public's ability to sue large corporations.

Several years later, in Bush's home state of Texas, two Mexican-American men won a $2.5 million wrongful termination jury award against the sugar mill where they worked. The local Chamber of Commerce grew concerned. The Chamber hired Jon Opelt, a political/marketing consultant, to found the first CALA.

The year that Opelt launched the Texas CALA, Vice President Dan Quayle made tort reform a priority. As the push for tort reform gained momentum, Quayle met with Opelt and urged him to extend the geographical scope of CALA.

"It took off like spontaneous combustion," Opelt said, maintaining his argument that CALAs have always been genuinely grass-roots organizations. Opelt took off with it, earning the nickname "Sloganeer" for the sound bites he developed --such as "Class Action Abuse. Pennies for Us. Millions For Lawyers" -- a message that appeared nationwide on billboards, television and radio.

Opelt explains that CALAs hold a strong appeal for a "rainbow coalition" public because "there is a vein between the heart and the pocketbook. When this vein is cut, people squawk."

The CALAs' objective has been to convince the public that their pocketbooks and their security are in danger because of so-called "lawsuit abuse." A classic illustration of media-generated fears used by CALAs and affiliated groups is a television advertisement which several groups ran in April of 1995 featuring three fire fighters who appear to have just rescued someone from a fire.

"I didn't take this job to sit around and worry about being sued," says one.

"If we don't stop lawsuit abuse," adds a second, "I might not be able to do my job," says another.

"And my job just might be to save your life," concludes the last -- insinuating that public care-takers like firemen might rather let us burn than risk a lawsuit.

The advertisement was attacked by the General Secretary of the International Association of Firefighters, who was outraged by the false implication.

"America's citizens deserve to know that firefighters are absolutely not, as your ad suggests, afraid to save lives because of liability concerns," he said. The ad was ultimately pulled, but the misinformation campaigns continued.

Bush Protects His Donors
Not only did Bush support CALAs indirectly by backing tort reform laws, but in a shocking veto -- which looks suspiciously like a cover-up to protect the interests of the business moguls who indirectly fund CALAs -- he blocked an initiative that would have minimized CALAs' hold on the Texas judiciary system.

In Texas, the public elects supreme court judges, which means that those candidates, like candidates for any other elected office, are targeted by special interest groups interested in future pay-backs. Tort reform groups have been among the highest contributors to supreme court candidates, and with measurable effect. Court Watch's 1991-1999 report on insurance cases in the Texas Supreme Court reveals that "decisions by the high court eliminated significant incentives for insurance companies to behave responsibly, stripping consumers of important protections."

The Texas electorate has not failed to notice this shift. A full 83 percent of the public think judges are already unduly influenced by campaign contributions, and 79 percent of lawyers who appear before the judges think campaign contributions significantly influence courtroom decisions. Ironically, almost half of the justices on the court think the same thing.

In response to Texans' concern about the state of their judicial system, the Texas legislature attempted to pass a bill which would "place judicial candidates' information on the Internet, to offer citizens more detailed background on the candidates and perhaps reduce the costs of judicial campaigns," according to Shannon Davis of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The reform easily passed through the Texas legislature, only to hit an unforeseen road block in Bush's office.

In June of this year, "Bush vetoed the legislation, saying it would place the Secretary of State in an 'inappropriate role,'" Davis reported, despite the American Bar Association's recommendation to the contrary. As the veto demonstrated, the governor's respect for free and truthful information may come second to his respect for corporate cash.

The report has provoked a disgusted response from Green Party Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader, who criticized the caps on damages that Bush voted for.

"With such restrictions in place," said Nader, "reckless or malicious [corporations] find it more cost-effective to continue their harmful behavior knowing they face only relatively small and predictable monetary damages."

"This partly explains," Nader continued, "why Governor Bush always speaks of personal responsibility, but not corporate responsibility."

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Albion Monitor August 12, 2000 (

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