Banana Boomerang

The SE Texas Record Jun. 22, 2008, 3:24am

It appears that we're seeing the beginning of the end of Provost Umphrey's Nicaraguan courtroom banana drama, with the case moved to a courtroom in Houston last week from friendlier local confines.

Judge Donald Floyd tried his best to hold on to it. It was the least he could do for his Beaumont billionaire chum, Walter Umphrey.

But rules are rules, and plaintiffs have to go to the locale of corporate defendants when they want to sue them.

That's even when the lawsuit seems less about the defendant and all about the local lawyers doing the suing. This one couldn't be more so.

Provost Umphrey (P-U) is suing banana giant Dole Food and two lawyers, Dole general counsel Michael Carter, and Houston-based Jones Day partner Jim Teater. P-U claims the men teamed with a Nicaraguan political activist and one time-Sandinista revolutionary named Victorino Espinales in a conspiracy to deprive the law firm of legal fees.

In 2005, a Nicaraguan court ordered Dole to pay 150 banana workers $97 million in damages because of a dangerous pesticide used at its plantations that was banned in the U.S. in the late 1970s. P-U stood to take a big chunk of the millions in damages, but the company appealed.

That's when Espinales, allegedly, started talking. He claimed he, not Provost Umphey, now represented most of the banana workers, even though the law firm claims it has signed contracts with the Nicaraguans.

P-U accused Espinales of defamation.

Seeing that Nicaraguans don't abide by U.S. law, what does this have to do with Jefferson County? Not much, but it's interesting to watch a venue shopper get venue shopped.

We don't mean in this case: Dole is justified in getting the action moved to Harris County. But in Nicaragua, where they make their own laws, play their own favorites, and leverage their own grey areas, it's entertaining to watch P-U shriek and cry foul like the companies it frequently targets.

Beaumont isn't Managua, but justice here can seem similarly foreign to outsiders. Here it's ladled out by buddy-pal judges your accusers know from the country club, there it's hijacked by communist radicals content to intercept the process when they feel like it.

Don't forget this helpless feeling, Provost Umphrey. Maybe next time, it will make you more empathetic.

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