Feature The people’s lawyer?

Texas AG Greg Abbott has been a friend to corporations, but now he says he works for you

“Hey, this is Greg Abbott,” the Texas Attorney General’s voice crackles warmly over the phone. It’s a casual, friendly greeting, appropriate to a politician settled in Austin, which despite the biennial cash- and drama-fueled spectacle of the Texas Legislature continues to be known as “The Live Music Capital of the World.”

Whatever, as a Richard Linklater character might say. Politicos know that this midsize metropolis’ down-home exterior is a convenient mask, much as President George Bush’s folksy humor is a cunning sleight of hand. Long gone are the days when the East Coast Kennedy types could afford to roll their eyes at the rawly powerful hayseeds of the South; Austin is a smart place to begin a national political career.

Attorney General Greg Abbott in front of the Ten Commandments on the State Capitol grounds that was at the heart of the Supreme Court case Van Orden v. Perry, which Abbott argued and won.

So, for that matter, is the office of Attorney General. Eliot Spitzer of New York is writing the current manual on leveraging the junkyard-dog job for something more glamorous — and closer to the White House. But he’s certainly not the first. In Texas, several governors were former AGs, including James Hogg and Mark White. Two of them, Price Daniels and Charles Culberson, also used their AG tenure to leverage a seat in the United States Senate. Most recently, John Cornyn moved from the AG’s office to the U.S. Senate.

The Attorney General is the state’s top legal advisor and advocate. Although AG powers vary by state, in general they prosecute some criminal violations, enforce health, safety, and consumer regulations, give legal advice to government entities, and represent the state in the courts. Some attorneys general, like Spitzer, are particularly aggressive on white-collar crime ranging from false advertising to predatory lending to securities fraud. Because the AG is often seen as “the people’s lawyer,” it’s a powerful political platform for building broad-base support.

Now comes before the people of Texas a well-spoken, voluble man, Greg Abbott, who has proceeded in steady steps toward something big. He served three years as a state trial judge in Houston before 1995 when then-Governor Bush appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court, to which he was twice reelected. In 2002, Abbott ran a successful campaign against Democrat Kirk Watson for Cornyn’s AG post after Cornyn was elected to Senator Phil Gramm’s seat.

Since taking office, Abbott has focused on child-support collections — a hallmark of the Texas office since Jim Mattox was AG — and carved out a consumer-advocacy niche in the digital economy. He has made state headlines by creating a Cyber Crimes unit that seeks out and prosecutes on-line sexual predators and a Fugitive Unit that tracks down sex offenders who have violated parole. More recently, the AG has found a place on the Associated Press national news wire with his spyware lawsuit against Sony BMG and with a multistate settlement with Ameriquest Mortgage Corp. over unfair lending practices. “Broadly speaking, the primary goal is to use this office every day to make life better for the people of the state of Texas,” says Abbott.

The steady stream of press releases from the Texas AG’s office is on message, touting a record of prosecution of child-support evaders, Medicaid fraud, and consumer abuse including post-Hurricane Rita price inflation, e-mail spam, and, last week, illegal sales of cell-phone numbers. Abbott’s office also has announced initiatives to promote compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act and to crack down on election fraud. In short, the man seems to be doing what he was elected to do, and collecting headlines that will read well on future campaign literature along the way.

His life story reads well, too. The 48-year-old native Texan was born in Wichita Falls and grew up in Duncanville, a small town on the southwestern edge of Fort Worth. After graduating from UT-Austin with a degree in finance, he earned a law degree from Vanderbilt University. Shortly thereafter, Abbott was jogging in a park when a tree fell on him; the damage to his spinal cord confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. As a 2005 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out, Abbott is part of a pack of Texans that Bush has supported and promoted since his time as governor who have overcome considerable adversity. Despite his physical handicap, Abbott practiced law at Bracewell & Giuliani (formerly Bracewell & Patterson), a large and prestigious corporate-law firm based in Houston and when he moved to the bench, he earned several awards, including Jurist of the Year from the Texas Review of Law & Politics. He has been married for 24 years and is the father of a 9-year old girl, Audrey.

Ready to pull the lever to elect him to another four-year term? Not so fast, caution some consumer-advocacy groups: Abbott’s record is mixed at best.

“I will say that Attorney General Abbott has been responsive with regard to going after insurance companies in high-profile ways,” says N. Alex Winslow, executive director of the Texas Watch Foundation, which tracks insurance fraud and other consumer-protection issues. He cites the AG’s recent actions to force Allstate to pay claims resulting from Hurricane Rita. “If I had a complaint it probably would be that `he` has not been aggressive enough in areas where the `insurance` company is overcharging or abusing its customers.” Winslow says the AG could go after insurance companies that charge excessive rates despite action by the Texas Department of Insurance. “Definitely the AG should be more aggressive with regard to rates.”

Texans pay more for home-owner’s insurance than residents of any other state, and while the weather is often blamed, some critics don’t buy that explanation. “It’s hard to see how Texas weather is any more severe than Florida’s,” says Democratic strategist Kelly Fero. “I believe that’s a function of the political environment.

“I would simply apply the facts of each case to the law as it existed and let the results be what they may. Sometimes that ruled in favor of some big company; sometimes it turned out that was a ruling in favor of a consumer.”

- Greg Abbott

Luke Metzger, public interest advocate for Texas Public Interest Research Group, also gives Abbott a mixed review. He says the AG’s office has been effective on some identity-theft issues, such as the right to know when companies have lost sensitive data, and on open-government issues. But, he says, “in other areas it’s been more of a disappointment.” Metzger says his organization was unhappy with the AG’s ruling that a law passed last legislative session mandating the creation of an on-line clearing house for cheaper Canadian prescription drugs is illegal, as well as with Abbott’s failure to weigh in on environmental issues at the national level as other attorneys general have done. Abbott, for instance, is not among the 12 AGs who are on record opposing the Bush Administration’s plan to restrict drastically the Toxics Release Inventory, a crucial resource for environmentalists and community health workers. “The latter seems to be one that with his posturing on open records would be a natural for him,” says Metzger.

Partisan critics of the AG take an even more cynical view. “Both Cornyn and Abbott did this,” says Fero of Abbott’s open-records initiatives. “They proclaimed themselves to be fierce defenders of open-records laws, thus eliciting fairly regular glowing editorials.”

Fero worked in the Attorney General’s office under Mattox. He says that Abbott’s pursuit of apple-pie issues with broad appeal, such as cracking down on on-line sex predators, obscures a shift in the AG’s focus. “It is not a consumer-protection agency anymore, and hasn’t been for at least a decade and maybe longer.

“The Texas AG in `the ’80s` was a national leader in trying to hold big insurance accountable. Now that’s shifted to the New York Attorney General and the Texas AG really does not have a national presence anymore.”

Another area in which Metzger would like to see Abbott throw his weight around is predatory lending practices. Abbott recently announced a multistate, $325 million settlement with Ameriquest mortgage, $18 million of which will go to affected Texans, but TexPIRG is concerned about the number of lenders who charge burdensome interest rates for short-term loans, or payday loans, often locking consumers in a deepening spiral of debt. By taking advantage of a legal loophole, lenders can avoid federal interest-rate caps and charge as much as 600-percent interest, says Metzger. “As opposed to many other attorneys general that have really gone out and found a way to take on usurious lending, `Abbott’s` office has kind of ignored the issue and ruled that evasion of state lending caps are legal.”

Fero’s claim that the Texas AG no longer has a national presence is not entirely accurate. Abbott made national headlines last spring when he represented the State of Texas before the Supreme Court in the Ten Commandments case, Van Orden v. Perry. Texas won and its large, outdoor granite sculpture still stands on the Capitol grounds. Abbott argued that Texas’ monument did not violate the separation of church and state because the intent of the state and the organization that donated the monument was secular and historical rather than religious, but Abbott foes worry that this case is an example of the AG’s willingness to kowtow to cultural conservatives.

Abbott in front of the microphones. His major initiatives in office include a Cyber Crimes Unit to catch on-line sex predators, a Fugitive Unit, and an Open Meetings Act training program.

“That was all for a show to play to his religious-right base,” says attorney David Van Os, who unsucessfully challenged Abbott for his seat on the Supreme Court and is running against him for the AG post this year. “There’re much bigger problems facing the the people of Texas than a Ten Commandments model on the state capitol grounds.” Van Os acknowledges that as AG Abbott is obliged to defend the state when it is sued, but he says flying to Washington to argue the case himself was pure political grandstanding.

Van Os is also bitter about Abbott’s role in the 2002 redistricting battle that secured Republican control of Texas’ U.S. Congressional seats in the 2004 elections. Abbott signed off on the plan, putting the state in the role of defending what appears to Democratic observers as a naked power grab. “An AG who knew that his job was to be the people’s lawyer would not have given `Representative Tom` Craddick and `Senator David` Dewhurst such an easy, free pass.”

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting echoes Van Os’ charge. “Ask him how much he spent with Andy Taylor,” says Soechting. According to the Los Angeles Times: $772,399. Taylor was a lawyer with Locke Liddell & Sapp who advised the Tom DeLay-founded PAC Texans for a Republican Majority, which spearheaded the Texas takeover during the 2002 elections. Abbott subsequently hired Taylor to defend the new GOP-favorable map in court.

Taylor isn’t the only figure that connects dots between Abbott and indicted House member DeLay. In 2001 and 2002, Texans for Greg Abbott, the attorney general’s campaign-fundraising arm, hired lobbyist John Colyandro, who is indicted in the TRMPAC case for allegedly violating Texas election law by funneling corporate money to candidates. Former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, who lost to Abbott in the 2002 election, sued Colyandro, identifying him as the link between Abbott’s campaign, TRMPAC, and the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, which reportedly spent $1.5 million campaigning against Watson and for Abbott. A federal judge removed Colyandro from the case in November, but he is still under indictment in the TRMPAC investigation.

For Democrats such as Van Os and Fero, the redistricting fight is evidence that the Greg Abbott who served on the Supreme Court is alive and well. During his time on the bench, Abbott was criticized for being among a cadre of judges who accepted so much corporate money that it called the integrity of the court into question. “The Texas Supreme Court continued its consistent support of defendants in the state’s civil court battles throughout the 1999-2000 term, stripping consumers, employees and children of needed protections and shielding corporate defendants from responsibility,” reads a 1999-2000 report by Texas Watch. “In particular, the 1999-2000 court removed important protections and incentives for workplace safety, premises safety, product safety, insurance consumers and small-dollar claimants.”

Of greater concern, a 1998 report by Texans for Public Justice entitled “Payola Justice” reported that 46 percent of Abbott’s 1996 campaign contributions were linked to the court’s docket. A 2001 report concluded 57 percent of Abbott’s money came from parties petitioning the court. Nonetheless, TPJ included Abbott in a group it dubbed the New Guard, which was seen as a moderate force compared to the hard-line pro-defendant court of the early ’90s — if only because there was so little damage left to do.

Abbott describes his approach to adjudication as “strict construction.” “I would simply apply the facts of each case to the law as it existed and let the results be what they may,” he says. “Sometimes that ruled in favor of some big company; sometimes it turned out that was a ruling in favor of a consumer against a big company.” As it happens, says Texas Watch, in the 1999-2000 season in cases between a consumer and a corporate entity the Court ruled in favor of plaintiffs a mere 23 percent of the time.

As for campaign donations, says Abbott, “We’re always happy to accept support from people across the state, and you just can’t worry about that.” Among the donors Abbott can’t worry about is the tort-reform juggernaut Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which contributed $350,000 to Abbott’s 2002 run for AG; Houston housing magnate Bob Perry, who with family members has contributed as much to Abbott’s current war chest; more corporate law firms than you can shake a gavel at; and Kevan Hammond, a Dallas direct-mail magnate who’s well-acquainted with consumer law. In 1994, a Hammond company called Credicorp paid a $4 million fine in Florida for deceptive-advertising practices.

Hammond is no longer listed as a principal or officer with Credicorp, which is still in business offering consumers a credit line to purchase products from the company, but his Marketing Investors Corp. shares a Dallas address with the Better Business Bureau bad apple, as do a handful of similar quasi-loan companies tied to Hammond.

But guilt by association is not enough to hang a man, as many a Republican and Democrat is relieved to note. Only Abbott’s record will tell the tale, and even his critics have to admit the Cyber Crimes Unit is a good idea.

Will he be stumping on his record in a campaign for the U.S. Senate when Kay Bailey Hutchison finally moves on? Abbott demurs: “My plan obviously is to just keep living every day, working every day to do all I can for the state of Texas, not knowing when a tree may fall on me.”

By Elaine Wolff

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.