May 10, 2016 - 8:00 pm
Anybody who’s ever been to a courthouse knows its possible to arrange perfectly true facts to lead a jury to a false conclusion.
It’s no different in the court of public opinion.
Take two recent ads from the Koch brothers-backed Freedom Partners Action Fund PAC targeting Democratic former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who’s now running for Senate.
The ads allege she hired a well-connected Washington, D.C., law firm to sue Bank of America during the foreclosure crisis. The firm earned millions in fees. Partners in the firm later gave Cortez Masto campaign contributions.
But wait, there’s more.
After the recession inspired a tsunami of foreclosures across the country, Cortez Matso and her colleagues sought to hold banks accountable for damages related to the crisis. Shorthanded and seeking expertise in complex litigation, she sought bids from outside counsel, and ultimately recommended the firm Cohen Milstein for the job. (According to the New York Times, that firm pitched its services to states. Cortez Masto had no relationship with the firm before seeking bids.)
The state Board of Examiners — headed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval — approved a contingency contract, which meant the firm could earn money only if it won settlements. But it did: Cohen Milstein secured a $38 million settlement from Bank of America, earning $5.6 million in fees. The settlement was later praised by Republican state officials including U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Joe Heck, who’s now running against Cortez Masto for the Senate.
But not everyone was happy: The Wall Street Journal in 2013 slammed Nevada’s outside attorneys, and the concept of engaging outside counsel in general. (That editorial — which incorrectly says Nevada law prohibits the hiring of outside counsel — forms the basis for some of the Freedom Partners attacks on Cortez Masto. In fact, Republican and Democratic attorneys general alike have hired outside lawyers to handle big cases.)
Later, after Cortez Masto was successfully re-elected to her second and final term, six partners at Cohen Milstein donated to her campaign accounts. Their collective contributions — ranging from $250 to $750 each — totaled $2,650. According to Cortez Masto’s final campaign fundraising report from the 2010 election cycle, she raised a total of $459,315. The Cohen Milstein contributions total slightly more than one-half of 1 percent of that total. The firm also contributed to the Democratic Attorneys General Association.
Viewers are supposed to connect the two things — the firm’s hiring and the contributions — as proof of a quid pro quo. But that’s an insinuation, one for which there’s no actual proof. Should we conclude there’s corruption in current Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt’s hiring of a Washington, D.C., firm to defend Nevada’s new Education Savings Account program in 2015 after two partners donated to his 2014 election? Or is it more likely Laxalt hired the firm because it employed Paul Clement, an experienced former solicitor general with a history of successful Supreme Court arguments?
So, while it’s true Cortez Masto recommended the hiring of a law firm that earned money representing the state and whose partners later contributed to her campaign, it’s also true the firm successfully forced one of the largest banks in the country to pay the state millions to compensate for alleged wrongdoing.
That sounds much more like Cortez Masto doing her job than cozying up to a Washington special interest for personal profit. In fact, you’d have to very carefully arrange the facts to lead people to that conclusion.
That’s why you always have to wait until you’ve heard the entire story, in court and out.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of the show “PoliticsNOW” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.