Graves and Robertson Call out “Snake Farm”

Nowdy gave me a heads up on this link. I’ll let the story that appeared in yesterday’s Kansas City Star speak for itself.


Former U.S. attorney Todd Graves and former Missouri Supreme Court chief justice Chip Robertson are angrily denying charges of wrongdoing by State Farm Insurance in Hurricane Katrina-related litigation in Mississippi.

State Farm this month asked a federal judge to throw out a whistleblower lawsuit brought by clients of Graves and Robertson.

The case, brought by two sisters who were once claims adjusters for State Farm, alleges that it manipulated policyholder claims to avoid paying Hurricane Katrina claims, billing them instead to the National Flood Insurance Program.

Separately, the insurance giant has moved to disqualify Graves, a partner with the Kansas City firm of Graves Bartle & Marcus, and Robertson, a partner with Leawood-based Bartimus Frickleton Robertson & Gorney. The insurer maintains that their clients, Cori and Kerri Rigsby, illegally downloaded confidential policyholder data and provided it to their counsel for use in the litigation.

“There’s a reason people call them ‘Snake Farm,’ ” Robertson said Monday. “This is a travesty. I know they’re trying to sell a story, but it would be useful if they’d try to get the facts before trying to influence improperly any judge who might be reading the Internet.

“They’re just plain wrong about this, and the way they operate, it’s not surprising. But it is disappointing they continue to operate this way.”

This month U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter disqualified a team of lawyers known as the Scruggs Katrina Group from bringing Katrina-related claims against State Farm. The judge found the group had paid sham “consulting” fees of $150,000 per year to each of the Rigsbys.

The group, which was led by famed Mississippi trial lawyer Richard F. “Dickie” Scruggs, sued State Farm and other insurers over flood-exclusion clauses in the companies’ homeowner policies. The lawsuits argued that the clauses were inapplicable because they didn’t specifically exclude damage caused by storm surges.

Scruggs is best known as the attorney who led the assault on the tobacco industry in the 1990s. The industry later agreed to pay 46 states $246 billion over 25 years to settle the cases.

Scruggs, however, now faces up to five years in prison. He pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to pay a judge $50,000 in return for a favorable ruling in a fee dispute arising from the Katrina litigation.

Scruggs’ son, Zach Scruggs, pleaded guilty a few days later to knowing that improper contacts had been made with the judge and failing to report them. Graves represented the younger Scruggs in the criminal case.

Although Graves and Robertson were not part of the Scruggs Katrina Group, State Farm wants them off the whistleblower case. The insurer charges they were at meetings during which its computer data were illegally accessed.

That accusation met with angry denunciations this week by Graves and Robertson, who emphatically denied they had any role — as participants or observers — in the matter.

“They’re trying to cast these aspersions on us by saying that on March 11 (2006) we were with these girls in a trailer and got on the State Farm Web site and viewed stuff,” Graves said. “The depositions State Farm cites don’t say that.”

Graves acknowledged the Rigsbys might have given some of the downloaded information to Tony DeWitt, Robertson’s partner. But that, he said, “was not an ethical violation.”

“You’re not supposed to be able to go in court and just throw things up there,” Graves said. “Maybe in the blog world you can, but that’s not how you’re supposed to plead cases.”

Graves and Robertson plan to file a detailed response in court this month.