The state’s top Democratic donor, trial lawyer Steve Mostyn, is spearheading a new group of like-minded attorneys who want to shake up politics — and the storied Texas Trial Lawyers Association along with it.
Mostyn and two heavy-hitter trial lawyers, Amy Witherite of Dallas and Kurt Arnold of Houston, have formed a new group called the Texas Association of Consumer Lawyers. The chief goal, says Mostyn, is getting more money into the hands of candidates friendly to their cause, with as little administrative bloat as possible.
Mostyn said the group was created in part out of frustration that dues being paid to the Texas Trial Lawyers Association are financing way too much overhead — leaving far too little money for campaign spending. Like the TTLA, the new group is a 501(c)(6), a not-for-profit entity favored by trade groups, and it will have a related political action committee for donating to campaigns.
According to Guidestar, which tracks the spending of nonprofit organizations, TTLA’s longtime executive director, Tommy Townsend, was paid $1,061,880 in 2011. The report showed compensation for key employees accounted for nearly a third of the group’s more than $6 million in receipts that year.
“I’m not interested in being part of a country club,” Mostyn said. “I’m interested in getting something done.”
TTLA President Brad Parker said he welcomed the creation of the group and didn’t see it as a competitor.
“We’re going to work together,” Parker said. “We’re both trying to preserve the civil justice system. That’s where all of our efforts and goals are.” Parker declined to address the issue of administrative overhead or executive salaries at TTLA but said Mostyn’s laser focus on political involvement represented a “valid model” for a trade association.
“He’s got legitimate concerns,” Parker said. “His heart is committed to the same thing my heart is committed to.”
Witherite, the Dallas trial lawyer who is helping to organize the new group, said she is still a TTLA member and believes the two groups can co-exist.
"I want more of my money going directly into campaigns," she said. "I think [TTLA does] a lot of good, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have another group that is symbiotic."
Mostyn and his wife, Amber, who chairs Annie’s List, which helps Democratic women get elected in Texas, are considered to be the state’s most prolific Democratic donors.
In 2010, Steve Mostyn famously paid for full-page ads in Texas newspapers calling Gov. Rick Perry a “coward” for refusing to debate his Democratic rival, former Houston Mayor Bill White. In 2012, Mostyn and his wife were ranked by the Houston Chronicle as the top Texas givers to Democratic Super PACs, including Priorities USA, which supported the re-election of President Obama.
Mostyn is a former president of TTLA but he has since given up his membership. He said the association has come to look at direct political involvement “like kind of a nuisance” instead of its main focus — all at a time when Republican-led curbs on lawsuits have made it harder and harder for people to get redress in the courts.
Mostyn said use of the term “consumer lawyers” in the name of the new association underscores a broader focus. He said the new group would make it easier for lawyers who do defense work as part of their practice to join the new association.
The TTLA was once a major player in state politics, but its fortunes have declined along with the once-dominant Texas Democratic Party. This summer, in its latest report filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, TTLA's political committee reported $247,000 in incoming campaign contributions, $151,000 in expenditures and $220,000 in the bank.
By comparison, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the conservative group that promotes lawsuit restrictions and generally sides with Republicans, reported $1.9 million in contrbituions, $316,000 in expenditures and $3 million in the bank.
Mostyn said he hoped the formation of the new lawyers' association would nudge TTLA toward putting more of its money into direct political combat.
“I think it’s going to pressure TTLA to focus on politics or get out of the political game,” Mostyn said. “I don’t see them participating at all. They seem to be stuck in a time warp over there.”
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