State senator working with Watts on home turf opioid lawsuit, lawyers billing Hidalgo County $3,800 an hour

By David Yates | May 2, 2018


Photo from San Antonio Magazine.

HIDALGO COUNTY – A state senator is representing a county in his district in more ways than one – a litigious venture that could prove incredibly profitable for the legislator.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat representing District 20, has teamed up with controversial attorney Mikal Watts to represent Hidalgo County, which makes up a sizable portion of the legislator’s constituency, in a multi-million dollar opioid lawsuit.

While the news of Hidalgo County’s opioid suit broke in September, what wasn’t reported was how much the four law firms handling the litigation stand to profit.

Watts' contract with the county, a copy of which was obtained by the Record, shows his firm, Watts Guerra, will receive 29 percent of the attorney's fees.

The Gallagher Law Firm and Fibich Leebron (two firms Watts has teamed up with to represent several other Texas counties in opioid litigation), will both receive 28 percent respectively.

The remainder of the fees, 15 percent, will go to Hinojosa.

Under the contract, the firms' fee will be the lesser amount of 35 percent of the recovery, or a formula based on hours worked, which is the hourly rate of the person performing the work multiplied by four.

The multiplier of four is the maximum allowed by state law.

The hourly fees set forth in the contract are $950 an hour for partners, $600 for non-partners, and $200 for paralegals and law clerks.

Meaning, hourly work performed by Hinojosa, founder of the Law Office of Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa in McAllen, would presumably be billed at $950 times four, or simply put – $3,800 an hour.

Hinojosa also attempted to sign up Nueces County, which is also in his district, for an opioid suit but failed to persuade the county’s commissioners court.

The state senator did not respond to a request for comment.

Possible underlying political connections may be paying off for Watts in other counties as well.

Watts, Gallagher and Fibich Leebron are also representing Cameron County in an opioid lawsuit.

And while the three firms are charging Cameron the same hourly rates as Hidalgo, records obtained by the Record show former judge and current Watts Guerra attorney Rose Vela was the point person in securing the contract with Cameron County. 

Vela, who was also a justice on the 13th Court of Appeals, is the wife of Cameron county area Congressman Filemon Vela, a Democrat overseeing Texas’ 34th Congressional District.

On Sept. 11, Vela, via email, sent Juan Gonzalez, attorney for the Cameron County Commissioners Court Legal Division, the proposed contract for the opioid litigation, records show.

That same day, Gonzalez emailed Vela back with the following response: “Got it. I will present it for consideration. The only other thing is that I don’t see your name included and I want to make sure that any interest or involvement you may have is protected.”

Watts’ history with Texas lawmakers extends beyond opioid litigation.

In July, Watts was disqualified as state Sen. Carlos Uresti’s attorney in a criminal fraud case. Watts had previously represented one of Uresti’s victims, a wrongful death plaintiff referred to him by the convicted senator.

Uresti received a $200,000 loan from Watts against fees Uresti expected to receive from Cantu’s settlement, according to My San Antonio.

Watts has not returned a request for comment.

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