Lear Jet Justice in West Virginia? A 'Circus Masquerading as a Court'

Incensed Judge: "Why?... Why should I" disclose husband’s business deal?

ByABC News
December 2, 2014, 12:32 PM

— -- As a $90 million jury verdict was wending its way to the West Virginia Supreme Court, the lawyer handling the nursing home abuse case did more than prepare appellate briefs and ready himself for oral arguments. He was, critics said, pulling every lever available to him to try to give his client an edge outside the legal system -- lining up thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for the court’s chief justice and negotiating a private deal to buy a $1.3 million Lear Jet from her husband.

When the nursing home case finally reached the state’s high court earlier this year, Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis wrote the majority opinion upholding the jury verdict for the client of lawyer Michael Fuller, though lowering the final payout to just over $40 million. The cut for Fuller’s firm: more than $17 million -- one of the largest payouts he’s ever secured.

Davis never disclosed the airplane deal, telling ABC News she was under no obligation to do so because it involved her husband, and not her. But ethics experts have questioned that assertion.

“This does not look good for the rule of law,” said James Sample, an expert on judicial ethics at Hofstra University Law School. “A million-dollar sale of an airplane while litigation involving the lawyer who purchases the airplane is pending before the court? Absolutely no question. It’s proper to disclose, and it is improper to not disclose.”

“This is a circus masquerading as a court,” Sample said.

Watch for more from the ABC News investigation tonight on “Nightline”.

Some 39 states elect some or all of their judges, and heated campaigns for high court seats have become increasingly combative and expensive. In 2014, candidates and groups spent nearly $14 million on TV ads in judicial contests, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The nursing home case is just the latest to prompt questions about the actions of the highest court in the small Appalachian state where intimate bonds in the legal and business community have repeatedly created thorny ethical entanglements.

The most famous of these, involving notorious coal boss Don Blankenship, led the United States Supreme Court to force the recusal of a state judge after Blankenship spent $3 million for an outside group to push for the judge’s election while a case involving his company was pending. A second high court judge was pressured into recusing himself when photographs surfaced showing him on vacation with Blankenship in the French Riviera.

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship confronts ABC News camera in 2008.

It is into this environment that Fuller, a plaintiff’s attorney based in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, moved eight years ago. He opened a satellite office on a busy shopping street in the West Virginia state capital, and began advertising on local television for victims of nursing home abuse who could be potential clients. He says he was attracted to West Virginia because it has one of the oldest populations in the country.

“So we knew,” he said, “there would be a need here for the services we provide -- for holding these large corporations accountable for the way they care, and don't care, for these residents.”

In September of 2009, Dorothy Douglas was admitted to the Heartland Nursing Home in Charleston. She was 87 years old and, according to court testimony, was suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, and other health issues. When she arrived there, she was able to walk with help from a walker and could recognize and communicate with her family.

About 45 minutes later, Butcher called to apologize. He did not know, he said, whether Fuller and Segal knew each other.

“I can’t speak to as Scott knowing Mr. Fuller, I only assume they knew of each other being high profile attorneys but I think Mr. Fuller was motivated by the price and the quality of the aircraft,” he wrote in a follow-up email to ABC News. “All negotiations happened through Avpro and it was a standard aircraft sale nothing out of the ordinary.”

The privacy shrouding airplane transactions also makes it impossible to determine with certainty how much Fuller paid for the jet, and neither Fuller, Segal nor Butcher would say how much was paid. When ABC News asked a spokeswoman for Davis to reveal the sale price, she too said she would not say.

A source familiar with the sale told ABC News that Fuller paid roughly $1.35 million for the plane. The source asked not to be identified because the private jet industry is tight knit and sale prices are closely guarded.

Butcher said Segal was very anxious to sell his Learjet 31a because he had already purchased a new aircraft and it was on its way to West Virginia. The plane was going on the market at a difficult time for the private jet industry. Only three Learjet 31a airplanes were sold at all that year, according to industry experts. The average time a plane sat on the market was 400 to 500 days, Butcher said. And one potential buyer for the Segal jet had backed out of the deal, Butcher said.

Fuller arrived on the scene a short time later. Butcher said the pilots working for the two men may have made the initial contact over the plane.

“I was not involved in the marketing of the plane,” Segal told ABC News. “When an offer was made, I accepted it and had to fill out the necessary paperwork. I never spoke to or met anyone from the Fuller McHugh law firm. I never met [Fuller] or talked to him. The entire transaction was handled by Bob Butcher and the AVPRO team.”

Fuller said he played by the rules, and any decision about recusal did not belong to him.

“Certainly, a justice, if they feel that they can't be fair and impartial, can recuse themselves,” Fuller said.

Last month, Fuller arrived in the Lear Jet for an important court hearing in Charleston, West Virginia. Following the Supreme Court ruling, the nursing home case had formally settled. ManorCare had agreed to pay Mr. Douglas $38 million. Of the money, $10 million would go to Douglas and another $10 million to his sister. A little more than $17 million would go to Fuller’s firm.

Douglas told ABC News he believes justice was done.

He said he hopes the case will send a message to nursing homes “to step up to the plate a little bit more. Treat [residents] a little bit better.”

“It’s been a long four years and it’s over with,” he said. “We’re happy with what took place today. Maybe I can get some sleep tonight.”