Quin Hillyer: Telecoms face double risk on FISA
WASHINGTON -Did the House Democratic leadership really sell out national security just to kowtow to rich plaintiffs’ lawyers who fill their campaign coffers?
Prompted by groundbreaking reporting by Townhall’s Amanda Carpenter and columns by Robert Novak and others, the notion that congressional liberals are letting torts trump anti-terrorism is firmly taking hold.
With good reason. Telecommunications companies clearly have much to fear in a major legal and moral catch-22 now that Congress has allowed a key intelligence surveillance law approved in the wake of 9/11 to expire.
The key sticking point in the proposed Protect America Act, which House Democratic leaders blocked last week, is a provision giving the telecoms immunity from lawsuits for helping the surveillance program without specific court orders.
The companies received written assurances from the Justice Department of the program’s legality, but now they face dozens of lawsuits seeking damages (for alleged invasion of privacy) that could run into hundreds of billions of dollars.
Carpenter’s report showed that, while only 29 of 100 senators voted against the bill, 24 of those 29 received campaign cash from one or more of the plaintiffs attorneys in suits already filed against the telecoms. In all, 66 of these lawyers have given some $1.5 million to Democrats. Republicans received just $4,250.
Without immunity, the companies are unlikely to participate in this program that experts of both parties consider vital to anti-terrorism efforts — and would thus hobble the program drastically.
After all, as The Wall Street Journal noted this week, without immunity, the telecoms face double legal jeopardy. If they lose money through the wiretap suits, they become vulnerable to a second round of suits — this time from shareholders for putting the companies at risk.
The diabolical trick is that the same attorneys could seek jackpots both ways. Consider Eric Isaacson, himself a donor of $32,860 in the past six years to Democrats, who has made a career with controversial firms known for just the sort of class-action shareholder suits that The Journal warned about. He worked for 15 years for Milberg Weiss, three of whose top partners have pleaded guilty to a vast criminal kickback scheme that operated while Isaacson was there. The firm and a fourth partner are also under indictment and face trial later this year.
Isaacson joined now-convicted former Milberg Weiss lawyer William Lerach — with whom he has co-authored an academic paper on securities lawsuits — when Lerach split from the firm to form Lerach Coughlin (now Coughlin Stoia), the lead plaintiffs’ firm in the wiretap case Hepting v. AT&T. Attorneys for the two firms have donated millions of dollars to Democratic committees and/or current House and Senate members, almost all Democrats.
Isaacson was not implicated in the Milberg Weiss kickback scheme. The point is he comes from exactly the sort of cutthroat milieu that makes telecoms balk (absent immunity) when asked for an emergency foreign-intelligence wiretap.
Just imagine how Coughlin Stoia could take information gleaned from “discovery” motions in the wiretap suit and use it to try to nail the phone company in a subsequent investors’ suit that is the firm’s stock in trade.
Remember the modus operandi of Milberg Weiss, tactics that Isaacson specializes in defending on appeal. As former partners described in their guilty pleas, the firm would troll for clients with stock in big corporations and then file suit almost any time the share-price dropped, without specific evidence of wrongdoing but based merely on what Lerach called his internal “X-ray vision.”
These tactics are advocated at conferences at posh resorts for judges and law professors sponsored by the Institute for Law and Economic Policy, for which Isaacson is a vice president and Lerach is the former director. They are bullying tactics, the moral equivalent of a shakedown.
Without immunity from such shakedowns, the companies surely would be forced to decline even the most urgent of future government requests. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte has sworn under oath that the end result “reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States.”
The real losers, then, will be the American people whose lives these lawsuits, and the Democratic House leaders, have put at risk.