Brittney Booth and Kaitlin Bell
Mauro Reyna III signed with figure in Mission’s chemical plant scandal
MISSION — A signed agreement bearing the name of a challenger in the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s race indicates a deal strictly prohibited under state bar regulations.
Lawyer Mauro Reyna III’s signature on the agreement to share attorney fees with Mission resident Ester Salinas is prohibited by the Texas State Bar because Salinas is not an attorney.
The agreement concerns class-action lawsuits filed in connection with contamination at the old Hayes-Sammons chemical plant on Holland Avenue in Mission.
Salinas has been one of the most prominent voices in the call for compensation from Hayes-Sammons and some 30 other companies. Thousands of south Mission residents who live, or have lived, near the former chemical plant are involved.
Reyna said he signed the agreement in 1999.
Mentioned in the agreement is Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, a lawyer who is leading one of the class-action lawsuits for a majority of the plaintiffs and ultimately benefits from the case’s success.Garcia said he was not involved, in any way, with drafting the document in question. Reyna is one of 11 attorneys who work on Hayes-Sammons cases with him, he said.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with me," Garcia said. "I’m not involved in their dispute. I don’t want to be involved in their dispute. What (Reyna) does with his money is his business."
In the Hayes-Sammons class-action lawsuit, hundreds of plaintiffs, including Salinas, charge they suffered serious medical problems from working at or living near the former pesticide manufacturing and processing facility.
Reyna and Salinas agreed they would refer cases to Garcia’s law office and that Garcia would be the lead attorney in all cases, according to the signed document.
"It is understood and agreed between the parties to this Agreement that the Hayes-Sammons cases are referred to the Law Office of Ramon Garcia, P.C. and that Ramon Garcia will be the attorney in charge of these cases," the 1999 agreement reads. "It is understood and agreed further that Ramon Garcia will receive as his share of all attorney’s (sic) fees collected on these "Hayes-Sammons" cases seventy-five percent (75%) of all attorneys’ fees … the undersigned parties agree they will split 50/50 the twenty-five (25%) of attorney’s (sic) fees payable to Mauro Reyna, III on the Hayes-Sammons matter."
The agreement does say "Ramon Garcia is not a party to this Agreement, since this Agreement is between the undersigned parties only and concerns the twenty-five (25%) attorney’s fees not payable to Ramon Garcia…"
Asked about the agreement, Reyna and Salinas accused each other of either leaking the document or orchestrating its leak.
Reyna said after he signed the agreement he realized the agreement was illegal, and therefore void. He says that because the agreement was not legal under Texas Bar rules, the agreement is not valid.
Reyna said he told Salinas he would not follow the agreement, but agreed to pay her on an hourly basis and to reimburse her for expenses in return for her help in signing up people to join the lawsuit.
"I told her it was invalid. I can’t pay her attorney fees, she is not a lawyer," he said, but "I have paid her a lot of money."
Reyna did not say how much he paid Salinas.
Lawyers cannot pay a non-lawyer to solicit prospective clients or refer clients to any lawyer or firm, other than reasonable fees for advertising and public relations services, according to rule 7.03(b) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. These rules define how licensed attorneys can operate.
And lawyers are also prohibited from sharing attorney fees with non-attorneys, according to rule 5.04.
"The principal reasons for these limitations are to prevent solicitation by lay persons of clients for lawyers and to avoid encouraging or assisting non-lawyers in the practice of law," the rule states.
Violating a rule could result in disciplinary action if the state bar’s grievance committee determines it is warranted, with punishments ranging from public sanctions to bar license suspension and disbarment, depending on the violation, said Texas Bar Association spokeswoman Kim Davey.
However, the state bar would not comment on the legality of the agreement or whether they were investigating the matter, said Mark Pinckard, projects director for the state bar’s disciplinary counsel.
The Agreement’s Origins
Just exactly how the agreement between Reyna and Salinas came to be is not clear.
Reyna said Salinas drafted the agreement and brought it to him to sign.
Salinas, who claims it was Reyna’s office that produced the agreement for her to sign, only says it is "entirely possible" she may have signed it. In an emotional telephone interview Thursday afternoon, she said she never claimed to be an attorney.
"If anything was drafted up, that was from their office. I have been set up, tricked, whatever you want to call it. My number one objective is as an activist, to help, and get the people out of here," Salinas said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first filed a lawsuit against certain chemical companies to clean up the Hayes-Sammons plant in the early 1980s. After a settlement and clean-up, questions around the plant’s contamination and its health hazards for humans persisted.
Residents and former employees began filing class-action lawsuits in the late 1990s, and since then Salinas has lobbied government officials, organized and attended countless meetings and written extensively on the subject on a Web site she maintains and in other activist publications. Many residents credit her with bringing the lawsuit to court in the first place.
Salinas would not answer questions Thursday about whether she had worked with Reyna to refer cases or whether she had received any payments from the attorneys. She hung up the phone in tears.
On Friday, she referred all questions to state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, whom she has retained as her lawyer.
Hinojosa would not confirm or deny whether Salinas received any money in connection with the agreement. But he did say his client is a private citizen who did nothing wrong. Any responsibility rests with Reyna, he said.
"Mauro said he paid her a lot of money. That’s an admission (of guilt on Reyna’s part)," Hinojosa said.
Reyna’s argument is that the agreement is not binding because the agreement is illegal, and because he never paid Salinas actual attorney fees.
"Generally, contracts to do things illegally are considered void and unenforceable," said Richard M. Alderman, director of the Consumer Law Center and the Dwight Olds Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center.
"It’s really complicated. A contract to perform an illegal act is void, but it depends on what the illegality is and how illegal it is and what the equities would be," Alderman said.
However, lawyers are supposed to know the ethical codes that bind them to their profession, he said.
"This is not a common practice. It has been a rule for a long time," he said, referring to rules prohibiting attorneys from sharing fees with non-attorneys.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra said he will not investigate whether Reyna, who is running against him in the March 7 Democratic primary, or Salinas broke any state laws until after the election.
But he did say he believes the agreement could constitute barratry on Reyna’s part. Barratry is a third degree felony offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
"Any time you solicit a case in exchange for money, that is considered barratry, as far as the classical definition of the word," Guerra said.
Once the district attorney’s Democratic primary race in which Guerra and Reyna are candidates is over in March, Guerra says he would consider pursuing an investigation. Guerra did say the matter should be looked into by an outside agency, such as the Texas Rangers, Texas Attorney General’s Office or the Texas Department of Public Safety.
"My general policy is, I don’t investigate candidates during the campaign," he said, adding, "I cannot stop anybody going to a grand jury and asking a grand jury to investigate allegations against anybody."
Brittney Booth covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can call her at (956) 683-4437
Kaitlin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can call her at (956) 683-4446.