Boston bonanza

The SE Texas Record Nov. 17, 2007, 5:49am

It was two poor Filipino ship workers who risked their livelihoods and notified the U.S. Coast Guard of illegal, secret off-shore dumping of oil sludge.

But it's Beaumont lawyer Zack Hawthorn who wants the credit.

Actually, he'd settle for about $300,000 worth, or 33 percent of the $875,000 reward his two clients stand to share for their roles as whistleblowers against their employer, Tampa-based Overseas Shipholding Group (OSG).

Earlier this year, OSG had to pay a $37 million fine to the federal government for its transgressions. That's due to the testimony of Hawthorn's clients and 10 fellow deck hands, all foreign nationals who routinely spend weeks or months at sea.

The rub, as always, came in splitting up the spoils.

Lawyers for all other whistleblowers billed their clients less than $10,000 a piece; one billed nothing at all. Yet Hawthorn claims he is due almost $300,000, catching the attention of the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts, where the case was prosecuted.

Hawthorn insists he spent "almost three weeks" on the OSG case and had to front the expense of traveling from Beaumont to Boston, among other things. He adds that his clients agreed to pay a contingency fee, and are still willing to accept it to this day.

"I successfully represented my clients, and they made a good amount of money and are happy with it," Hawthorn told The Record.

Federal prosecutors counter that Hawthorn, in fact, did minimal work and is taking advantage of his clients, charging an unreasonable fee. They're asking a U.S. District Court judge to intervene.

"Hawthorn filed one substantive pleading, which was nine pages in length and included two case citations, and spoke for less than two minutes at the sentencing hearing," they argue. "These facts do not appear to justify the fees sought at all."

Indeed, they don't. That's even if Hawthorn did, as he says, dedicate three whole weeks to this case.

The easy math would then set his effective billable hour at something around $2,500 per, or several times the peak rate charged by America's priciest, most in-demand lawyers when they litigate complex, high-stakes cases.

Moreover, legitimate contingency agreement or not, Hawthorn's behavior-- striving to pad his own pockets at the expense of two men who toil in the bowels of an oil tanker-- should be rejected if only for the image of lawyer greed it projects.

And lawyers wonder why their profession is held in such low regard with the general public?

Hawthorn's fees should be shrunk down to size and the court should send a message: justice isn't only worth pursuing when the lawyers get their price.

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