As he accompanied Gov. Rick Perry last week on a short walk from the Governor’s Mansion to a downtown Austin courthouse, there was little in Tony Buzbee’s demeanor suggesting that his client was about to be booked on felony charges returned by a grand jury four days earlier.
A bright pink pocket square in his sports coat, the Houston lawyer appeared relaxed and jovial, rarely turning his attention from chatting with the governor, who projected equally good spirits. The only hint at the occasion — or the personality behind Buzbee’s reputation as a formidable courtroom adversary — came from the periodic scowl he directed toward a waiting throng of journalists and photographers.
Just a day before, Buzbee, 46, this time in a suit and tie, had cut a different figure. Speaking at a news conference he called to introduce the high-octane legal team he had assembled, Buzbee delivered what amounted to an opening argument.
“This is nothing more than banana republic politics,” he told reporters of an indictment against Perry, which he called a “nasty attack” on democratic government.
Buzbee’s presentation included clips of an intoxicated and hostile Rosemary Lehmberg, the Travis County district attorney, at the Travis County Jail. Her office houses the public integrity unit, whose funds Perry threatened to veto if she didn’t resign after pleading guilty to drunken driving. The charges against Perry stem from that June 2013 veto, which removed state money for the unit tasked with investigating state government corruption.
“Let’s not forget beyond this video some of the things that occurred during that stop and arrest that night,” Buzbee said after he showed the video reporters. “There were times in which she was kicking, beating on the window and screaming. Anybody who sees that tape would have lost confidence in the Travis County district attorney.”
The hard-charging news conference — and the relaxed stroll to the courthouse with his client — are each emblematic of the Houston lawyer leading Perry's legal defense team, who is known both for his tenacity and flair for the symbolic gesture.
Buzbee, who does not have a background in criminal law, has made his fortune being the kind of trial lawyer Perry has spent much of his time in office villainizing — going after oil companies, automobile manufacturers and governmental entities on personal injury and property damage claims.
His victories include collecting $37 million in settlements from the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, the state-run, industry-financed risk pool for property owners in parts of Texas where storms are common. Perry called a special session to overhaul the rules governing storm-related lawsuits in 2011, saying reforms were needed to prevent trial lawyers from treating the fund like a “personal ATM.”
In an interview, Buzbee rejected any suggestion that the politics of tort reform were relevant to the choice to take his latest case — or that he was an unconventional pick to lead the governor's defense.
“I don’t think it’s unusual in cases like this for defendants to choose the lawyer that he or she trusts the most and thinks will do the best job,” he said.
A statement on Buzbee from Travis Considine, a Perry spokesman, echoed that sentiment.
"Governor Perry chose Tony Buzbee to lead his legal team because he has great confidence and trust in his abilities," he said.
The friendship between the two men began during Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign. A mutual friend reached out to the lawyer, who like Perry is a Texas A&M University graduate, to see whether he would help coach the governor after his stumbling performances in early debates.
“Those are high-pressure situations, and we spent a lot of time together,” said Buzbee, whom Perry appointed to the A&M Board of Regents in 2013.
Buzbee also became a financial supporter of the governor during that time. In addition to hosting fundraisers and lending a jet for travel, he gave $250,000 to a political action committee set up to support the presidential bid and another $50,000 to Perry’s state campaign fund.
Until then, Buzbee primarily contributed to Democratic causes. That includes $15,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and over $200,000 to the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which supports mostly Democratic candidates. A former chairman of the Galveston County Democratic Party, Buzbee ran for the Texas House as a Democrat in 2002. He said now he no longer considers himself a partisan.
“I think people’s political views change as they get older,” he said.
Buzbee’s appeal to Perry as a lead attorney may go beyond the personal connection between the two men.
Successful plaintiff lawyers are typically highly skilled at molding public perception of their cases, said Beaumont-based attorney Brent Coon, whose personal injury work has often overlapped with Buzbee’s. Coon said they also have another quality that could benefit Perry: an appetite for keeping up an aggressive offense throughout protracted legal fights.
“They are good with sound bites. They are good with quotes, they are good with shaping the case in a way that fits them,” he said. “Some people carry swords, some people carry shields. Plaintiff lawyers carry swords. Because you have to be aggressive, you have to be in attack mode, you have to be proactive because you don’t win cases playing defense.”
In a career spanning a decade and a half, Buzbee has accumulated a resume notable not just for sizable wins but a sheer variety of cases.
“I’m not the typical car wreck lawyer that people like to write about,” he said. “If somebody has been aggrieved, and I think their case is right, I’ll represent them, and I’ll probably win.”
He has represented displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina who stayed in formaldehyde-laced FEMA trailers; Vietnamese welders lured to the U.S. through a human trafficking scheme; a father whose underage daughter drowned in a car accident after her first night of work at a Galveston-area strip club; former NFL players suing the league after suffering the effects of concussions; and two separate women whose jilted fiances demanded the return of engagement rings.
Buzbee filed lawsuits in 2012 against the now-deceased Amarillo millionaire Stanley Marsh III, the celebrated arts patron behind the Cadillac Ranch, on behalf of 10 teenage boys who said he sexually abused them in exchange for cash, drugs and alcohol. He has also sued a DNA testing firm that mailed a woman the leg of her dead father, Ford Motor Co. for the rollover death of a 13-year-old boy, and an Emirati sheik accused of torturing a Houston businessman at his royal ranch after he threatened to expose his sadistic treatment of other prisoners.
In 2011, he won a settlement from British Petroleum exceeding $150 million for a group of 19 workers injured in the Deepwater Horizon explosion. That followed a $100 million verdict a jury returned in 2009 for workers sickened by toxic fumes at BP’s Texas City refinery.
It is work that has not escaped the notice of the state’s influential tort reform lobby.
“A truth-challenged, opportunistic personal injury trial lawyer,” is how Texans For Lawsuit Reform, a business group that operates one of the state’s most powerful political action committees, referred to Buzbee in a February news release.
Sherry Sylvester, a spokeswoman for the group, emphasized its support of Perry, calling his indictment a “crass political attack.” But she added that TLR “stands by our previous statements regarding Tony Buzbee.”
With his latest case, Buzbee has also received criticism from other trial lawyers, including Coon, who said he would have declined the job.
“It would be very difficult to help the governor on this particular issue because he has been a very strong advocate for tort reform, which I find is just wrong, just grievously wrong,” he said.
Buzbee said he was aware his decision to represent Perry had attracted disapproval from other trial lawyers. But he shrugged off his detractors.
“Any lawyer who has taken an oath in the state of Texas, who would not want to be involved in the case and on the side of the governor, probably doesn’t understand their oath,” he said. “We can argue about tort reform, I guess. But it hasn’t impacted my practice.”
Disclosure: Tony Buzbee was a major donor to The Texas Tribune in 2012. The Texas A&M University System and Texas A&M University are corporate sponsors of the Tribune. BP America has been a corporate sponsor of the Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.