Big stories in 2008

The Madison County Record Dec. 31, 2008, 8:36am

Lakin arrives at the federal courthouse in East St. Louis prior to a hearing in which U.S. District Judge Phil Gilbert accepted a plea deal.

Lakin's attorney Scott Rosenblum holds open the door for his client.

Asbestos Judge Daniel Stack

Personal injury attorney Judy Cates

James Wexstten, campaigning in St. Clair County, won the Democratic primary race for appellate court justice in February. He won the general election in November.

Brad Lakin

Richard Burke

Big stories of 2008 include:

Tom Lakin saga concludes with six-year sentence on drug charges

Attorney Tom Lakin was taken into custody at the federal courthouse in East St. Louis on Sept. 10, after U.S. District Court Judge J. Phil Gilbert accepted a plea agreement on various drug charges.

Lakin had pleaded guilty to possessing and distributing cocaine to a person under 21 and maintaining a drug-involved premises.

He was sentenced to six years in prison and was also ordered to pay the cost of his incarceration and supervised release.

Lakin was indicted in April 2007 for cocaine possession and transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes. He pleaded guilty to drug-related charges. The sex-related charges were dropped under the binding plea agreement.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Clark said the government would prove that Lakin used and distributed cocaine "not occasionally...(but) monthly, weekly and sometimes daily."

He said that Lakin's East Alton residence was a place "where people would come...after bars were closed, using and sharing cocaine."

Clark also said witnesses would testify that his residence was used because it was believed that "local police would not interfere with a powerful, well-connected attorney," he said.

Lakin was also ordered to pay the cost of his incarceration and supervised release which Gilbert estimated to be approximately $128,800.

"I'll be damned if I am going to saddle taxpayers of this country" with the costs of incarceration "given the funds you have for your health and welfare," Gilbert said.

In addition, Lakin will pay $180,000 in restitution and forfeit $325,000.

In a courtroom packed with reporters, federal agents and families of the accused and accusers, Lakin remained calm after the judge accepted the deal.

"We prepared him (Lakin) that he could be taken into custody," said his attorney Scott Rosenblum after Gilbert accepted the plea deal. "We expected it given the statute."

The Bureau of Prisons has projected that Lakin will be released from federal prison on Nov. 30, 2013. He is serving his sentence at a federal prison camp in Yankton, S.D.

Asbestos docket rising in Madison County

As the Madison County asbestos docket continues to rise following a brief, yet dramatic two-year period of decline, many legal experts say the real growth spurt is just getting started.

Like two sides of the scales of justice, some states have lightened their asbestos dockets through legislative and legal reform, causing a direct effect on others increasingly weighed down by an influx of new claims.

From 2004 to 2006 Madison County looked to be one of those lightening the load. The number of new mesothelioma cases dropped from a high of nearly 1,000 per year to a low of just above 300.

But the shift was just a pause before the new growth really set in. As 2008 comes to an end, the number of new asbestos-related cases is close to 650.

W.R. Grace proved bankruptcy didn't have to happen

By Steve Korris

Three years ago, Sen. Joe Biden and other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee argued that if Congress created an asbestos trust fund, plaintiffs would immediately wipe it out and resume suing in state courts.

They promised that more bankruptcies would follow.

This year, however, an American corporation proved that the long string of asbestos bankruptcies didn't have to happen.

W.R. Grace and Company forced the issue by asking U.S. bankruptcy judge Judith Fitzgerald to calculate the value of asbestos suits against it.

At trial in January, epidemiologist Howard Ory testified that 13 of 14 asbestos plaintiffs suffered no real harm.

He estimated that among 380,000 plaintiffs who filed asbestos claims from 1989 to 2001, about 27,000 presented valid claims.

Plaintiff lawyers then settled their claims on terms so favorable to Grace that the value of its stock multiplied by 15.

No company in bankruptcy had ever seen its stock gain so much value.

Now the banks that carried Grace with low interest bankruptcy loans say they should collect back interest because Grace never was bankrupt.

In that case, many corporations that went through bankruptcy weren't really bankrupt.

They declared bankruptcy despite possessing great assets, because the cost of asbestos claims appeared to exceed their assets.

No corporation in bankruptcy had demanded a fair appraisal of claims, until Grace did.

Company owners may have gained courage from U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Texas, who declared in 2005 that among 10,000 asbestos and silicosis claims she had found one with a genuinely injured plaintiff.

Jack couldn't penalize anyone because she held temporary jurisdiction, so she sent the cases back to various judges to carry out justice.

Nothing happened to any of the lawyers who filed the bogus suits.

This year, justice crashed down on a famous asbestos lawyer from a different direction.

Dickie Scruggs of Oxford, Miss., went to federal prison after pleading guilty to charges that he conspired to bribe a judge.

SimmonsCooper gets in W.R. Grace action

By Steve Korris

John Simmons and Jeff Cooper knew little about W.R. Grace and Company when they started filing asbestos suits that helped push Grace into bankruptcy in 2001, according to statements SimmonsCooper attorney Robert Phillips made at a hearing in 2006.

"My firm was founded in 1999, middle of 1999, not even two years before Grace filed bankruptcy, by a pair of lawyers less than five years out of law school," Phillips told bankruptcy judge Judith Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh.

In less than a decade, the East Alton duo expanded its asbestos litigation reach to include claims from all over the country.

"We hadn't done hardly any discovery against Grace prior to Grace filing bankruptcy," Phillips said as he argued a motion to compel discovery against Grace and other third parties. Grace, a global specialty chemicals and materials company, turned solvent this year by forcing an estimation trial on the value of asbestos claims.

As the sides wrangled, Phillips protested that Grace asked for too much information on claimant questionnaires.

He said that if Grace could require claimants to fill out questionnaires that ask about exposure and settlements with other parties, it was only fair to allow claimants to prove their cases through discovery.

He said he would agree to a questionnaire asking for name, injury and medical condition, but added that "the debtor's questionnaire goes far beyond that."

"The debtor's questionnaire asks about exposure to their products," Phillips said.

"It asks about exposure to other companies' products.

"It asks about settlements with other parties.

"It asks about practically everything that touches upon in any conceivable way the merits of the claim the person is bringing.

"The claimant maybe had to know something but the debtor is asking far more than that and is going to use the information for far more than that."

Representing Grace, attorney David Bernick of Kirkland & Ellis said lawyers had taken massive discovery against Grace.

"The number of lawyers who are involved in the asbestos litigation process is actually relatively limited," Bernick said. "They've got it down to a machinery."

Phillips answered that certain firms might have documents on certain job sites that are superior to what Grace itself knows.

"To say that we have this vast information library at our disposal for Grace, for all the claims we have across Illinois, Missouri, and now, you know, no one's talking about the tens and hundreds of thousands of claims filed since petition date," he said.

Fitzgerald denied Phillips's motion to compel discovery. In April of this year the sides abruptly settled after Fitzgerald demanded claimants provide evidence of their disease.

Fifth District Appellate Court race

  • Wexstten defeats Cates 53%-47%

    James Wexstten fended off rival Democrat Judy Cates to retain his seat as appellate judge of the Fifth Judicial District.

    Voters in the state's 37 southern-most counties picked incumbent Wexstten, who had served a year on the appellate court by appointment, following a well-funded primary battle.

    Wexstten said he was very proud of the victory. He said the campaign's goal was to stay even with his opponent in the Metro-East which proved to be the result.

    Campaign finance reports showed that close to $1.5 million was spent on the race which each candidate helped personally finance.

    Cates put up more than $775,000; Wexstten nearly $175,000.

    Wexstten, of Mount Vernon, was appointed in January 2007 by the Illinois Supreme Court, on the recommendation of Justice Lloyd Karmeier, to fill a vacancy left by Judge Terrence Hopkins who died in October 2006. Before that, Wexstten had served more than 18 years as a circuit judge in the Second Circuit.

    Cates, of Belleville, is a personal injury lawyer and past president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

    Wexstten won November's general election as there was no Republican challenger running for the seat.

    Wexstten had received endorsements from southern Illinois law enforcement officials, physicians and Democratic party officials. His campaign contributions came from a variety of sources including plaintiff's attorneys, defense attorneys, labor organizations and the Illinois State Medical Society, in particular.

    Cates invested heavily in media, saturating the airwaves with her message that politics has no place in the courtroom.

  • 'Neighbors' make all the difference in Wexstten victory

    MOUNT VERNON - James Wexstten's neighbors returned a ringing verdict in his favor Feb. 5, choosing him by four and five to one over Judy Cates in his successful bid for the Democratic nomination to run for the Fifth District appellate court in November.

    Seventy-six percent of Jefferson County Democrats voted for Wexstten, of Mount Vernon, as he earned a chance to win a full term in a seat he holds by appointment.

    He carried every precinct in the county, and four precincts in Mount Vernon picked him five to one.

    In the city's three busiest precincts they picked him four to one, with tallies of 496 to 117, 342 to 76, and 304 to 77.

    Countywide, Wexstten collected 5,418 votes to 1,672 for Cates.

    Voters in adjacent counties also registered their approval.

    Wexstten scored 69 percent in Hamilton County, 63 percent in Franklin, 59 percent in Washington, 58 percent in Wayne, 57 percent in Marion, and 56 percent in Perry.

    In all, Jefferson County and its neighbors cast 18,203 votes for Wexstten and 10,112 for Cates, or 64 percent to 36.

    Their support guaranteed victory, because Wexstten roughly broke even in the other 30 counties of the vast Fifth District.

    The district extends 190 miles south to north, from Cairo almost to Decatur.

    It extends 150 miles west to east, from Godfrey to Robinson.

    Overall, Wexstten received 92,002 votes and Cates received 83,069.

    Cates carried her home county, St. Clair, and its neighbor, Madison, but not by the margins she needed.

    She scored 51 percent in St. Clair, 52 percent in Madison.

    St. Clair and Madison together gave her a disappointing surplus of 2,158 votes, an advantage that Jefferson County overcame alone with votes to spare.

    Her appeal faded as she hunted for rural votes.

    Among six counties that border St. Clair and Madison, only Bond County picked Cates.

    Likewise, Cates successfully pitched for votes in Carbondale and Effingham but could not draw as much support from surrounding communities.

    She won almost 60 percent in Effingham County but she slipped to 53 percent east of there, in Clay and Jasper, and 49 percent to the west, in Fayette and Shelby.

    Cates carried Jackson County, home of Southern Illinois University, but just barely. The county cast 3,586 votes for Cates and 3,515 for Wexstten.

    She carried none of the counties that border Jackson.

    Voters at the southern tip of Illinois backed Cates, with Massac standing out as the only county above 60 percent in her column.

    Wexstten, on top of big wins in coal towns of Franklin and Perry counties near his home, racked up big margins in other counties with lots of coal in their veins.

    He scored 64 percent in Montgomery County, 58 percent in Randolph and 55 percent in Williamson.

    Votes by county blocks:
    Marion, Wayne, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, Perry, Washington:
    Wexstten: 18,203 (64%)
    Cates: 10,112 (36%)

    St. Clair, Madison:
    Cates: 38,140 (51%)
    Wexstten: 35,982 (49%)

    28 other counties below a line that follows the northern boundaries of Montgomery, Christian, Shelby, Effingham, Jasper, Crawford:
    Wexstten: 37,817 (52%)
    Cates: 34,817 (48%)

    Lakin and Burke; Freed & Weiss and Lakin settle civil brawls

    BENTON - Brad Lakin and former Lakin Law Firm member Richard Burke settled claims against each other at U.S. courthouse in Benton on Jan. 24.

    Burke dropped a claim that Lakin owed him fees from class action settlements, and Lakin dropped a claim that Burke violated his contract with the firm.

    U.S. District Judge Michael Reagan confirmed the settlement in a Jan. 28 order.

    The settlement closes the final front in a contest that began when Lakin fired Burke and severed the Lakin firm's ties to the Chicago firm of Freed and Weiss.

    Burke set up practice in St. Louis, in association with Freed and Weiss.

    Lakin sued Freed and Weiss in Madison County, Freed and Weiss sued Lakin in Cook County, Burke sued Lakin in federal court, and Lakin countersued Burke.

    Now they've called off the whole contest, having settled the Madison County and Cook County suits Jan. 11.

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