EXCLUSIVE: Buying Justice: Private Jets And Campaign Donations Jeopardize High Court’s Integrity

Lear jet. (Flickr image by stuart.mike)

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When attorney Michael Fuller’s private Lear jet landed in West Virginia in June 2016, he brought millions of dollars worth of unwelcome memories with him.

Fuller is a named partner at the Mississippi-based McHugh Fuller Law Group, a small law practice wielding influence in multiple states that specializes in nursing home negligence and appearances of impropriety.

The five lawyer operation has proved remarkably effective — the firm boasts hundreds of millions of dollars in judgements in recent years.

One of the largest single verdicts he secured came in a West Virginia case in 2011, when he won a $91.5 million award in Kanawha County circuit court for Tom Douglas, whose mother Dorothy died after her stay in a Charleston nursing home. The case began to work its away through the state’s appeals courts — the nursing home petitioned for a reduced judgement, as the $91.5 million figure dramatically exceeds the state’s cap on punitive damages (Douglas was awarded $11.5 in compensatory damages and an $80 million punitive award). As both parties had a great deal at stake, the case, without doubt, would be settled by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

The case was taken up by the West Virginia high court in 2014. Unknown to the nursing home’s lawyers and the four associate justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals was Fuller’s close financial relationship with Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis.

Between 2011 and 2012, Fuller purchased a Lear jet model 31A from Davis’s husband Scott Segal, while he and others at the McHugh Fuller Law Group and individuals connected to the firm donated almost $30,000 to her 2012 reelection effort, in what a campaign finance expert says resembles an illegal straw donor ring.

Sources with knowledge of an investigation say Fuller is the subject of a law enforcement probe.

‘Those are all red flags to me’

The aircraft exchange was facilitated by GKG Law, a boutique law firm based in Washington, D.C., that specializes in corporate aviation acquisitions. Filings obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation indicate GKG attorney Katharine Meyer incorporated a shell entity called GKG Acquisitions CLXIV on July 1, 2011 solely for the Segal-Fuller transaction (the corporation was dissolved on July 10, 2012, shortly after the sale was successfully executed). GKG Acquisitions took possession of the aircraft from another entity, Alpine Air Inc., on Sept. 12, 2011. Incorporation records obtained by TheDCNF list Segal as president and incorporator. The entity’s principal address is Segal’s law practice, Segal Law, in Charleston, W.Va.

The plane was purchased by a third shell entity, MF Property Management, from GKG Acquisitions on December 30, 2011, according to Federal Aviation Administration registration records. Fuller’s name is the only name publicly associated with the entity, whose principal address in Hattiesburg, Mississippi is the same as the McHugh Fuller Law Group. There is no information TheDCNF reviewed which indicates GKG was aware of any possible impropriety between Segal and Fuller. The deal was successfully transacted in 6 months, an expeditious sale compared to other exchanges during that period.

Though TheDCNF was not able to definitively ascertain the amount paid for the aircraft, the price range of a 2000s era 31A model is between $1.3 and $1.9 million, according to retail prices.

Davis did not disclose the sizable transaction on her 2012 financial disclosure report, despite a requirement to report all income in amounts over $1,000. The justice did list Alpine Air in a list of businesses in which she or her spouse serve as officers. She identified the entity as an “aircraft holding co.”

Just two weeks after he took title of Segal’s lear jet, 18 individuals connected to Fuller contributed $1,000 to Justice Davis’s reelection campaign, according to contribution records reviewed by TheDCNF.  The donations came from seven employees of the McHugh Fuller Law Group; Fuller, McHugh, firm associates Bryant Chaffin, Anthony Reins, and Amy Quezon, Darrell Simmons, the firm’s pilot, and Christine Althoff. Five individuals related to McHugh Fuller employees also donated the maximum amount to Davis’s campaign, including Fuller’s mother and father Michael and Karon Fuller, Anthony Reins’s wife Lisa Reins, Bryant Chaffin’s wife Jamie Chaffin, and Matthew Wilde, who shares a residence with Amy Quezon according to public records and identified as a college student.

In addition to the bevy of McHugh Fuller contributions, another six donations came by way of six individuals from Plant City, Florida. Fuller previously practiced law in the area as a prosecutor. The contributors all appear closely connected to Steve Edwards, president of a Plant City landscaping company called S&O Greenworks whom Fuller represented in class action litigation, Steve Edwards v. Motorola, Inc., in 2007.

Though no contributions were made in Edwards’s name, several came from individuals close to him and his company. His wife, Jennifer Edwards, appears to have made two contributions to the Davis reelection effort. One contribution was made in her married name, and another was made in the name Jennifer Schlichenmayer, Edwards’s maiden name. Two other S&O Greenworks employees, Oscar Villanueva and Michelle Edwards also made donations. Additional contributions came from Kylen Suggs and Tammy Miller, neighbors of Steve and Jennifer Edwards; Suggs, Miller, and Edwards all live on Oak Creek Drive in Brandon, Fla., a street of modest means.

It is unclear what connection the Floridians have to West Virginia judicial politics beyond their association with Steve Edwards and Michael Fuller. None have extensive histories of political activism that TheDCNF could identify. Plant City contributors reached by TheDCNF gave a wide spectrum of answers about their donations. Suggs immediately terminated the call when pressed about the donations. Multiple queries to Steve Edwards, S&O Greenworks, and Wilde went unanswered. Miller says she supports Davis and plans to remain active in West Virginia judicial politics.

The Plant City contributions in particular may indicate a straw donation scheme. Straw donations occur when individuals use another’s money to make donations in their own name. Paul Ryan, deputy executive director at the Campaign Legal Center, says the fact posture of the Florida donations are similar to those of other straw donor rackets. Ryan did not pass a definitive judgement on the facts of this case, and emphasized he is not an expert on the campaign finance laws particular to West Virginia.

“$1,000 contributions are highly unusual from people of modest means in my experience,” he told TheDCNF. “Particularly when the contribution is going to someone in another state, when the contribution is coming from someone with no track record of involving themselves as political contributors, those are all red flags to me.”

“I wouldn’t say that at any point in my career would I refer to straw donors as a common practice,” he added. “It’s always unusual, it’s always a big deal, in my opinion, and I want to see strong enforcement to prevent use of straw donors.”

He also suggested the donations attributed to Jennifer Edwards specifically may be illegal. “The contribution limits … apply simply per person,” he said of donations made in her married and maiden names. “If the aggregate total of contributions given by this woman … exceed the limit applicable to a person’s contribution to a candidate, that’s illegal.”

The donations from McHugh Fuller employees, their family members, and the donations from Plant City residents, were all made on January 12, 2012. The Fuller-connected contributions on January 12 totaled $18,000.

The January 12 contributions were not the only donations made to Davis by McHugh Fuller and others near firm principals. Less than two months before the election, on Sept. 18, Fuller, McHugh, Quezon, Simmons, Althoff, Wilde, and Anthony and Lisa Reins all made additional contributions to Davis in the amount of $1,000. Jamie Lee Thomas, Fuller’s inamorata with whom he fathered a child, also contributed the maximum amount to Davis on the 18th.

In total, TheDCNF can confirm McHugh, Fuller, firm lawyers, and others in the firm’s orbit donated at least $27,000 to the justice’s reelection effort. Mark Ferguson, a West Virginia lawyer who served as the campaign’s treasurer, declined to comment for this story. Davis won reelection to the court on November 6, 2012. Her term expires in 2024.

Other West Virginia Democrats benefited from the firm’s beneficence. Both Fuller and McHugh individually contributed $10,000 to the West Virginia State Democratic Executive Committee on July 10, 2012. A group associated with the practice also gave extensively to Letitia Chafin, a Democrat candidate for the state Supreme Court of Appeals; in June 2012, Lisa Reins, Jamie Chaffin, Villanueva, Suggs, and Thomas all donated $1,000 to Chafin. A retired McHugh Fuller attorney, Philip Chaffin, also donated $1,000. Chafin did not win a seat on the court, receiving 22 percent of the vote in a field of four.

‘Shockingly result-oriented analysis’

The Douglas appeal reached the West Virginia high court two years after the election and the sale of the lear jet, in 2014. Oral arguments in the case were heard on March 5th of that year. Fuller himself argued the case before the justices. Despite McHugh Fuller’s substantial history of support for her campaign, and the considerable profit she accrued in her family’s quick sale of the lear jet to Fuller, Davis did not recuse herself from the case.

The court issued an opinion in the matter on June 18, several months later. Davis authored the court’s opinion, preserving $42 million of the original $92 million award.

Justice Allen Loughry, who defeated Chafin — the firm’s preferred candidate — for a seat on the court in 2012, filed a blistering dissent, blasting Davis’s interpretative gymnastics.

“I am not surprised that the majority attempts to hide its shockingly result-oriented analysis in a seventy-two page tome,” he wrote. “Without question, the biases and whims of the majority are on full display in its boldly tortured analysis.”

Justice Davis and Michael Fuller declined to comment for this story.

Fuller returns to West Virginia Aug. 8 in pursuit of another major verdict. Proceedings in Wanda Williams v. CMO Management, another nursing home conglomerate, begin next week.

Geoffrey Ingersoll contributed to this report

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Tags : west virginia
Kevin Daley and Elena Weissmann