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Trial Lawyers Dig For Last-Minute Donations to Help Friendly Candidates

October 24, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ After narrowly escaping legislation to impose limits on lawsuit damages, America’s trial lawyers are flexing their political muscle by lining up last-minute financial help for friendly congressional candidates.

Fund-raising experts hired by the American Trial Lawyers Association are phoning thousands of attorneys around the country, urging them to write checks to 78 politicians endorsed by the professional group.

With a few exceptions, most of the candidates who will benefit are Democrats _ including Sens. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and John Kerry of Massachusetts. Both are locked in tight re-election races.

In recent weeks, Republicans from Bob Dole on down have tried to make the group’s prolific political giving an issue.

ATLA got special permission from the Federal Election Commission to ask members to contribute to specific candidates, a plan designed to give lawyers’ donations more punch without running up against federal donation limits.

``Our staff is on the phone 12 to 14 hours a day,″ said John Powers, a New York lawyer who is heading up the group’s effort.

The last-minute push is just one more sign that the powerful lawyer’s lobby is taking nothing for granted after watching Congress pass two pieces of legislation limiting lawsuits, which would cut into lawyers’ fees.

Only a veto from President Clinton, a lawyer himself, stopped the bill limiting damage awards in product liability cases from becoming law. Clinton also vetoed a bill restricting investors’ rights to sue companies, but that veto was overridden.

Trial lawyers have a long history of big giving. Lawyers and law firms were Clinton’s largest source of donations this election season, pumping $3.98 million into his campaign from the beginning of the election cycle in December 1995 through September.

ATLA has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to both political parties in so-called ``soft money″ _ donations for party-building efforts that are exempt from the post-Watergate limits.

Dole has repeatedly attacked lawyers for blocking the lawsuit reform and accused Clinton of being in ATLA’s back pocket. But Dole’s campaign also got significant help from lawyers _ about $1.5 million through June 30.

Even before the new fund-raising effort was created, ATLA gave generously to congressional candidates through its political action committee, which doled out $1.7 million to Democrats and $206,000 to Republicans through October.

But PACs are limited to giving just $10,000 per candidate per election season.

The phone bank idea was hatched to try to tap those ATLA members who haven’t opened their checkbooks.

One hundred members volunteered to get the effort off the ground. The group hired professional fund-raisers in September to send out a second mailing and hit the phones.

The group makes no apologies for its political giving, insisting big corporations that want to rein in lawyers’ fees outspend attorneys 10 to 1.

``We’re saying that we’re going to pay attention to how you vote, and if you’re not with us, and your opponent is, that’s going to be taken into consideration,″ Powers said.

The stakes are clearer than ever.

``Product liability is going to be back, and many other of the same (civil lawsuit reform) bills will be back,″ said Howard Twiggs, president of ATLA. ``Our agenda is set for us by our opponents.″

On the phone bank, lawyers are asked to give certain amounts to specific candidates. But ATLA doesn’t touch the donations, so it can direct as much as it wants without the money counting against its own PAC donation limit.

ATLA officials say they are simply providing guidance for lawyers too busy for politics, and the decision to donate is ultimately up to the individuals.

But the group wants candidates to know who was behind the fund-raising effort. Six lawyers who donated $2,550 to Kerry made sure to identify themselves as ATLA members when they sent in their checks.

Observers say it’s just another way that interest groups can circumvent limits on PAC donations.

``They’re really charting a new course in contributions,″ said Sheila Krumholz, of the Center for Responsive Politics, which studies campaign finance. ``If you can take credit for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from others, you can really make your voice heard above and beyond what other PACs do.″

ATLA got the idea of ``bundling″ donations to specific candidates from Emily’s List, a political action committee that raises money for women candidates. While fairly common for PACs, few trade organizations are using the practice.

Reps. Bill Martini of New Jersey, Peter King of New York and Howard Coble of North Carolina are the only Republicans endorsed by ATLA. All three voted against a bill that would have limited punitive damage awards in product liability lawsuits.

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