Trial lawyers help Edwards make his case

Excerpt from The Buying of the President 2004 follows the Edwards money trail

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Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has chosen a fellow member of the Senate and former primary rival John Edwards as his running mate. The Center for Public Integrity profiled Edwards in our New York Times bestselling book, The Buying of the President 2004, an excerpt of which runs below. The Center has also posted a list of Edwards' top career donors, information from his personal financial disclosuresfinancial reports filed by his various campaign committees with the FEC and by his 527 committee with the Internal Revenue Service, and a profile of the candidate.

In 1981, John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, moved from Nashville, Tennessee, to North Carolina, where Edwards was raised. Elizabeth took a job as an attorney at one of Raleigh's leading bankruptcy law firms, while Edwards joined a firm known for its criminal defense work, Tharrington Smith & Hargrove. He was soon asked by Wade Smith, one of the firm's founders and a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, to take on a malpractice case. Edwards turned down several settlement offers, according to The New Yorker, including one for $750,000 made just before the case went to the jury. Ultimately, Edwards won a damage award of $3.7 million for his client, his first million-dollar verdict and a record in North Carolina at the time. The following year, 1985, Edwards won a $6.5 million judgment for a 6-year-old girl who had suffered brain damage at Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville.

Edwards would try no fewer than 63 major cases during the 1990s and, according to media reports, brought in more than $152 million for his clients, almost all of whom were victims of medical malpractice. He became so admired and so feared that doctors would settle cases for millions of dollars rather than face him at trial. The high-stakes victories earned Edwards and law partner David Kirby the Association of Trial Lawyers of America's national award for public service. The courtroom conquests also netted Edwards an invitation to join the Inner Circle of Advocates, the exclusive, secretive club of 100 lawyers who have won multimillion-dollar verdicts.

Edwards gave up his law practice in 1998 and parlayed his fame and personal wealth — financial disclosures put his worth at between $13.7 million and $38.6 million — into a seat in the U.S. Senate. He went from relative obscurity to front-runner status against Democratic primary opponent D.G. Martin, who was well established in local politics as a former lobbyist and two-time congressional candidate. The political greenhorn won the primary and won again against his Republican rival, incumbent Senator Lauch Duncan Faircloth.

The campaign against Faircloth was financed largely through two sources: the wealth Edwards won in the courtroom (he loaned his campaign $3.2 million from personal funds) and contributions from attorneys from around the country. In fact, his deep-pocketed supporters have been drawn from the ranks of his professional brethren, America's personal injury lawyers — colleagues Edwards has willingly tapped throughout his political life for their resources, connections, and riches.

Trial lawyers, FEC records show, have been his most generous contributors. Of Edwards' top 25 career patrons, 22 are fellow members of the plaintiffs' bar. (The remaining three are soft money mogul and movie producer Stephen Bing, Goldman Sachs Group, and Wakefield Development, a real estate developer.) In early fundraising for his White House run Edwards relied heavily on his fellow lawyers, some of whom have been generous beyond what federal election law allows.

For example, C. "Tab" Turner of Turner & Associates is the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into alleged campaign finance law violations. Turner & Associates donated at least $200,000 to Edwards' campaign and to his 527 committee, the New American Optimists. Turner and four legal assistants from the firm each gave Edwards' presidential campaign the maximum $2,000 contribution in early 2003. One employee told the Washington Post that Turner had promised to reimburse the employees for their donations. A lawyer for Turner was quoted by the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer as saying Turner did not know it was illegal to funnel political contributions through another person, a trick that enables individual donors to exceed the $2,000 limit on contributions to candidates for federal office. The investigation is still ongoing.

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