Tuesday, May 8, 2007

When it comes to slowing down trials, few Texas lawmakers have had more success than Rep. Phil King. Using an exclusive perk for legislators who practice law, he can automatically postpone trial proceedings that would conflict with a legislative session. And halt them he has -- at least 69 times since 2003, making King, R-Weatherford, one of the most prolific users of the "legislative continuance" and apparently the top Republican doing it, records indicate.

King defends delay

Star-Telegram staff writer

AUSTIN -- When it comes to slowing down trials, few Texas lawmakers have had more success than Rep. Phil King. Using an exclusive perk for legislators who practice law, he can automatically postpone trial proceedings that would conflict with a legislative session.

And halt them he has -- at least 69 times since 2003, making King, R-Weatherford, one of the most prolific users of the "legislative continuance" and apparently the top Republican doing it, records indicate.

Now he's being accused of misusing his position to benefit himself by stacking the deck against opponents in Austin and back home. King says it's hogwash, and he is threatening to sue his chief critic for libel.

The allegations flow out of the hotbed of legal action -- over exploding wells, noisy gas plants and crisscrossing pipelines -- that has accompanied the area's natural gas boom.

A fiery death

At the center of it is a man named Tab Dotson, whose fiery death at age 46 in a forklift cab near Decatur two years ago sparked a lawsuit against EnCana Oil & Gas USA, a subsidiary of the Canadian oil giant EnCana Corp. A lawyer for Dotson's family, which includes two young daughters, says King suggested a few months ago that he could help them pursue personal-injury claims against EnCana.

Then in February, King turned up as one of EnCana's defense lawyers -- and got an automatic trial delay for the company. Now Dotson's widow and her lawyer say King double-crossed them and used his legislative privilege for a quick corporate payoff.

"I just don't understand how some politician can get involved with an oil company at the last minute and keep us from going to trial. It seems like he is more interested in getting a paycheck than helping people," said Dotson's widow, Kristy. "Our little girls need some closure."

King called what the Euless family is going through a "terrible situation," but he said the trial would have been delayed anyway. And he accuses the Dotson family's lawyer, Seth Anderson, of orchestrating a media smear campaign against him so that EnCana will settle to avoid a lengthy trial and appeal.

"What he wants to do is get a settlement so that he avoids all that, because he can get his cash right now," King said. "I think it's highly, highly, highly unethical." EnCana declined to comment on the case Monday.

Anderson says it's King who's acting unethically, and he has filed a sworn complaint asserting a variety of misdeeds. Perhaps the most explosive is Anderson's contention that King promised to use his political influence to "mess with" a pipeline company -- Dallas-based Crosstex Energy Services -- in Parker County.

Official grievances

It's gotten so heated that Anderson and King are considering filing official grievances against each other with the State Bar of Texas. King says he's also considering a libel-and-slander lawsuit against Anderson. In the meantime, the men agree on at least one thing: This is a tale of greed and tragedy in the Barnett Shale. And somebody isn't telling the truth.

Decades ago, legislator-lawyers got the right to automatically delay legal proceedings while they're in session. The idea was that lawmakers couldn't meet court deadlines while working in Austin.

The practice has been scrutinized in recent years, with critics saying legislators are using the perk for quick cash on behalf of clients who benefit from trial delays. South Texas Democrats, often acting on behalf of corporations in product-liability cases, grabbed headlines a few years ago for allegedly misusing continuances, costing at least one of them a House seat.

More recently, Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas has come under fire for filing 241 continuances from 2003 to 2005, records show. King was described as No. 2 in legislative continuances with 53 filed in that span, according to a study by Texans for Public Justice.

Sixteen more filed this year and last push King's total to 69 since a law passed in 2003 required them to be disclosed publicly, records show. King doesn't dispute the figures, but he says it's unfair to portray him as an abuser of the privilege. As a rare solo practitioner in the Legislature, he says he can't rely on a partner during legislative sessions.

He also says that many of the cases -- though not the one involving EnCana -- involve longtime clients and that several recent special sessions pumped up his use of the automatic delay.

"I don't have anybody to hand cases over to," he said.

Start of the dispute

King's dispute with Anderson began during a November discussion about Crosstex Energy. Like EnCana, Crosstex is a major player in the 15-county Barnett Shale field.

Anderson, a Fort Worth personal-injury lawyer, was representing Parker County residents in a lawsuit against Crosstex over noise and towering flames at its Azle processing plant. At an acquaintance's suggestion, Anderson called King, and both agree that the lawmaker offered to help.

They don't agree on much else.

In a sworn affidavit in the EnCana lawsuit, Anderson said King told him that, as a lawmaker, he could make trouble for Crosstex. King had already filed a legislative continuance against Crosstex on behalf of a property owner fighting condemnation proceedings in 2006. But Anderson says King offered to do something else, namely to "mess with" Crosstex.

"Mr. King explained that if he was retained in the Crosstex case, he could talk to some people in Austin to do things to 'shut them down for a while,'" Anderson said in his affidavit. "Mr. King explained that hurting them in the 'pocketbook' was the only way ... to get things done." Anderson said in an interview that it all sounded "unethical" to him and that he dropped the issue.

King denies making those comments, saying he "wouldn't have spoken like that in that context." But he did acknowledge that, on behalf of the constituent who had retained Anderson to sue Crosstex, he made calls to the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which enforce pipeline regulations.

King, chairman of the powerful House Regulated Industries Committee, said he merely called to see whether Crosstex was meeting all state regulations and learned that the company was in "full compliance." He described the actions as routine constituent advocacy.

Helping the residents of Parker and Wise Counties -- not himself -- is also why King says he sponsored legislation this year to curtail companies from snapping up private land for pipeline construction. His House Bill 1659 was designed to give more safeguards to landowners whose property is condemned under eminent domain by pipeline companies. But the bill would also have given lawyer-legislators like King expanded power to file the kind of automatic delays that have created controversy in the EnCana lawsuit.

The oil and gas industry didn't like that provision, and King had to send the bill back to his panel and strip it out before it went to the House floor. The new version passed Friday and awaits Senate action.

King said he saw no conflict of interest in passing a bill that affects a company he opposed in an eminent-domain case. "Crosstex has a number of pipelines. Pipelines are controversial in my district," he said. "That's why I filed 1659, because [condemnation] is a very abusive process to the property owner."

A mutual complaint

Complaints about Crosstex are what brought King and Anderson together in that November phone call. They do agree on that point. But what happened next is very much in dispute.

In fact, whether the conversation even occurred came into question initially. In a February interview with the Wise County Messenger, King denied talking to Anderson in November, saying that the first time the two discussed the EnCana case was when Anderson called to complain about King's presence on the EnCana defense team. In an interview with the Star-Telegram last week, King acknowledged that the November call took place, but he said he's not sure whether EnCana ever came up. "I'm not calling [Anderson] a liar," King said. "I just don't remember."

Case chronology

April 19, 2005: Forklift driver Tab Dotson, 46, is burned to death near Decatur after a tire strikes a supposedly dead gas well, sparking an explosion.

May 10, 2006: Dotson's family files a negligence lawsuit against EnCana Oil & Gas USA, asserting that it failed to alert Dotson to the dangers of the existing wellhead. EnCana denies the allegations.

Nov. 30: Lawyer Seth Anderson, representing the Dotsons, has a 16-minute chat with Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford. Anderson says King offered to help sue EnCana. King says he didn't.

Feb. 18: King, a newly hired EnCana defense lawyer, delays the March 20 trial using an automatic privilege reserved for lawyer-legislators.

Feb. 21: Anderson says in a sworn affidavit that King violated conflict-of-interest rules because they had discussed King's interest in joining the lawsuit against EnCana.

May 4: King tells the Star-Telegram that he can't remember whether EnCana was mentioned in the Nov. 30 call. He denies getting confidential information or having conflict of interest.

Aug. 14: New trial date set for the EnCana lawsuit.

Sources: Court records; Seth Anderson; Rep. Phil King