Wednesday, March 20, 2002
Hunt Says Ex-Client Pursued Him Out of Pain Over Child’s Death
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Former civil rights lawyer A. Thomas Hunt said yesterday that he believed an ex-client began hounding him because of the client’s own loss of his daughter at the hands of a drunk driver.
Testifying on the second day of a State Bar hearing on his petition for reinstatement as an attorney, Hunt repeated assertions that alcoholism led him to blow former teacher Howard Bennett’s federal age discrimination suit and hurt numerous other clients.
But Hunt said that years after he resigned from the State Bar, began paying restitution to other clients and tried to get his life together, he had to sue Bennett to fend off an “obsession” with punishing Hunt that could be explained only by Bennett’s “transference” of anger over his daughter’s death.
“I’m sympathetic to the man,” Hunt said. “I know the tragedy of it. There’s nothing worse in life. Nothing….But we were trying to get me back to being a properly functioning human being, and we had to defend ourselves.”
Hunt resigned with charges pending in 1993 and now is petitioning for reinstatement as an attorney. He has been working as a paralegal, mostly for lawyers with whom he once won groundbreaking civil rights settlements.
In testimony this week before State Bar Court Judge Paul Bacigalupo in Los Angeles, Hunt acknowledged hurting clients by failing to pursue their cases. But he said he has done his best to repay each of them, and described three lawsuits against Bennett as a way to defend himself.
Bennett told the MetNews yesterday that his daughter’s death had nothing to do with his anger at his former lawyer, and that he had already sued him for malpractice when he learned of Hunt’s claim that he was an alcoholic.
“It had nothing to do with how I tried to bring him to task for having hurt all of us,” Bennett said. “It was the injustice of what he had done.”
Bennett has yet to testify before Bacigalupo, but he has become the focus of the readmission hearing. Hunt has depicted Bennett as an out-of-control antagonist who will go to almost any length to wreak revenge.
He noted that Bennett rallied other former clients, encouraged them to attend Hunt’s court hearings, and organized a “Victims of Lawyers Hunt Club” to keep up the pressure on his former lawyer and on prosecutors.
Bennett’s group picketed in front of the State Bar building to call for reforms of the lawyer discipline system, and got national news coverage, including on the ABC news show “Prime Time Live” and in nationwide legal periodicals.
But Bennett was no newcomer to the power of publicity when he organized against Hunt. He had already helped organize the well-known environmental group “Heal the Bay” to clean up the polluted waters between the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Santa Monica, and was known for creating hard-hitting and camera-friendly demonstrations. He has been involved in other organizing drives as well, including a community group opposed to expansion of Los Angeles International Airport.
State Bar counsel Margaret Warren objected to Hunt’s attempt to explain Bennett’s actions as “pure speculation” but was overruled.
Bennett is expected to testify today.
Hunt’s wife, Eleanor Shellard, sued Bennett for defamation after Los Angeles Magazine quoted Bennett as saying she assisted her husband in damaging his clients. Hunt sued Bennett and his lawyers for breach of contract growing out of a settlement agreement in another matter, in which Bennett allegedly agreed to stop talking publicly about Hunt.
Hunt also sued Bennett for malicious prosecution after Bennett allegedly lied to the District Attorney’s Office to get prosecutors to go after Hunt for felony fraud. Two criminal actions ultimately were dismissed, and Hunt won a rare finding of factual innocence.
Attorney Mark Werksman, who represented Hunt in the criminal cases, is his counsel in the reinstatement proceeding as well.
The malicious prosecution action was thrown out twice. Hunt is currently appealing the final dismissal.
Hunt said the lawsuits were necessary to get Bennett to stop pestering him.
“Our strategy of dealing with him in litigation did work,” Hunt said. “He has stopped.”
Earlier, in response to Bacigalupo’s queries, Hunt said he would again handle civil rights cases upon his readmission and could again face the problems posed by fronting costs and being paid by contingency fee or by court order.
But he said financial pressures would never again lead him to drink, because he had learned to live without alcohol through Alcoholics Anonymous and The Other Bar—an organization that helps addicted lawyers—and because when he needs money he will do contract work for pay for other attorneys, much as he now does as a paralegal.
Besides, he said, he has matured in his attitude about his work.
“One of the things I realize is that the world will not end if I lose one of my civil rights cases,” he said.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company