The financial relationship between plaintiffs’ securities firms and the clients they represent has long been questioned, and not only because of the kinds of improper kickback payments for which Bill Lerach and Mel Weiss, among others, wound up in jail. Another practice that has raised recurring concerns is what is referred to as "pay-to-play" – which in this context refers to the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ payment of political contributions to elected officials in charge of public pension funds, supposedly in exchange for the lawyers’ selection as the funds’ class action counsel.


But while these kinds of concerns are frequently raised, a preliminary question is often overlooked – that is, regardless of questions about the effect the practice might have on the counsel selection process, are the plaintiffs’ lawyers in fact making political donations to elected officials who have authority over public funds?


That is the question examined in a recent New York University Law Review article by Drew T. Johnson-Skinner entitled "Paying to Play in Securities Class Actions: A Look at Lawyer’s Campaign Contributions" (here). The article’s author notes that while alleged pay-to-play practices are often discussed, and have even been the subject of various reform proposals, many commentators have simply "skipped" the "first stage of the analysis," which is the question "whether law firms are contributing to investment funds’ leadership at all."


In order to analyze the question, the article’s author looked at all 1076 securities class action lawsuits that were filed from 2002 to 2006, and then narrowed the data set to the 74 cases where "the filing lead plaintiff was an institutional investor with at least one state-level elected official or a person appointed by a state-level elected official, on its controlling board."


The author then looked at whether the law firms selected as counsel in each of the 74 cases had made campaign contributions to any elected officials affiliated with the funds that selected the firm. Reviewing publicly available information, the author found that "in a majority of cases where pay-to-play was possible, at least one law firm made a political contribution to an elected official with a lead plaintiff pension fund in the case."


The author concluded that his analysis "confirms that plaintiffs’ law firms are contributing to the pension funds that select them as counsel," and that "campaign contributions that could be the basis of paying-to-play are present across a broad range of cases." Moreover, the amount of money contributed by firms is also "significant."


However, the author cautioned that his research "does not explain why firms contribute to pension funds or the role that campaign contributions actually play in funds’ counsel-selection decisions." Rather, the author suggests that the value of his research is that it rules out any possible contention, in response to pay to play allegations, that law firms are not contributing to pension funds. In fact, they are.


While the law review article’s author declined to question whether the plaintiffs’ law firms’ political contributions are a form of pay-to-play, a separate legal study suggests at a minimum that the existence of political contributions may affect the attorneys’ fees that a public pension fund may pay.


A December 22, 2009 article (here) by New York University law professor Stephen Choi, Drew T. Johnson-Skinner, and University of Michigan law professor Adam Pritchard suggests that "state pension funds generally pay lower attorneys’ fees when they serve as lead plaintiffs in securities class actions than do individual investors serving in that capacity," but that when the authors controlled "for campaign contributions made to officials with influence over state pension fund" the differential disappears. Thus, the authors conclude, pay to play "appears to increase agency costs borne by shareholders in securities class actions."


In any event, questions continue to arise whether plaintiffs’ lawyers campaign contributions to officials that control public pension funds represents a form of improper influence.


For example, in connection with the class certification motion in the Countrywide subprime-related securities class action lawsuit, the Defendants had argued that the lead counsel in the case had made a series of campaign contributions to the New York State Comptroller, the sole trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, one of the lead plaintiffs in the case. (The other lead plaintiff group is the New York City Pension Funds.) The various contributions for the lawyers at the firm ranged in amount from $6,200 to $9,600, all made within four days’ time, after the law firm had been selected as lead counsel. The payments totaled "precisely $50,000."


In her December 9, 2009 order certifying the class (here), Central District of California Judge Mariana Pfaelzer noted that any suspicion of pay-to-play activity "would be relevant to attorney-class conflicts and the willingness of [the State Fund] to monitor its attorneys and make decisions for the benefit of the class rather than its attorneys," but she found that any such suspicion "may be somewhat speculative" in the Countywide case.


Judge Pfaelzer noted as a preliminary matter that "attorneys are free to exercise their right to donate to politicians who support their views" and that the defendants "do not allege that the donations violated any law." She also noted that "though not exactly correlative," lawyers and parties on the defense side have "similar political-donation freedom."


Perhaps more importantly, in rejecting the defendants’ objections, Judge Pfaelzer found that the lead plaintiffs’ firm had been retained for the case "after career staff recommended" the firm, following "reasonable ethics protocols" and based on the law firm’s "independent investigation of the case."


A December 10, 2009 Law Blog post about Judge Pfaelzer’s ruling can be found here.


The suggestion of similar concerns surfaced more recently in connection with the composition of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which commenced its high profile investigation of the financial crisis on Wednesday. As detailed in a January 13, 2010 Wall Street Journal article (here), one of the individuals on the ten-member commission is a lawyer with the Coughlin Stoia law firm. In addition, a senior commission staffer is on leave as a partner in the Coughlin Stoia law firm.


The Journal article reports that the commission chairman, Phil Angelides, received $250,000 in contributions from the law firm during his 2006 campaign for governor. The article quotes a representative of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform as saying that the appointment of plaintiffs’ class action attorney to the commission and its staff "raises a very real concern as to whether they will use the important work of the commission ultimately to feather their own nest." A law professor is also quoted as saying that the ties to the law firm could hurt the commission, noting that "the commission must maintain its distance from the perception that this is all a ‘gotcha’ exercise."


These kinds of concerns about plaintiffs’ law firms’ political contributions at a minimum draw upon a suggestion of at least the appearance of impropriety. As one way to try to avert this appearance, Florida has instituted a public process, conducted by its State Board of Administration, which oversees the state employee pension funds, to determine which firms will represent the Board in future securities class action lawsuits.


According to Allison Frankel’s December 14, 2009 AmLaw Litigation Daily article (here), 31 firms submitted proposals, from which a field of 12 candidates was selected. In a January 12, 2010 update (here), Frankel reported on the outcome of the process and the names of the five law firms finally selected. Her January 12 article also reports on the many "interesting tidbits" revealed in the law firms’ public submissions, including the firms’ hourly rates and the portfolio monitoring services the firms provide for many public pension funds.


Though the Florida process has all the virtues of transparency, the process itself did not eliminate the phenomenon of plaintiff’s lawyers’ campaign contributions to influential public officials. According to a December 12, 2009 St. Petersburg Times article (here), in the preceding 14 months, "lawyers and others tied to the firms interested in representing the SBA have spent at least $850,000 on Florida politics." The article quoted critics who suggested that "Florida’s short list mirrors the entrenched, pay-to-play culture between public pension funds and prominent class-action law firms."


In other words, as the law review article cited above demonstrates, the plaintiff’s law firms are in fact making political contributions to elected officials who are in a position to influence the counsel selection process. Whether or not the contribution are made for the purpose of influencing the counsel-selection process and whether the process is in fact influenced may be questions about which there may be a diversity of views; the plaintiffs’ lawyers are quick to defend their actions.


But I wonder whether this is going to be one of those kinds of issues that is out there and frequently noted, but then suddenly blows up when some very specific development moves it to the front burner. This is the kind of issue that could get people very excited if a certain combination of facts and circumstance should come to light. Even absent some dramatic revelation, the questions will continue, simply because of the way it looks.


Indeed, given the shadow it inevitably casts over plaintiffs’ attorneys and their motivations, you do wonder why they continue these practices. More cynical minds might suggest that it is obvious why the plaintiffs lawyers don’t stop.