Two state lawmakers were kicked off the agenda of a legal-aid luncheon today, where they were scheduled to talk about a bill opposed by powerful interests.
This morning, Rep. Tobias Read (D-Beaverton) and Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) sought and received excused absences from their legislative committee work to travel to Portland to address the a lunch held by The Lawyers' Campaign for Equal Justice.
Hundreds of lawyers filled the large conference room at the Governor Hotel, and the event's agenda included brief remarks from Read and Wiliamson, who are the sponsors of House Bill 4143, legislation that would direct the uncollected proceeds of class action lawsuits to Legal Aid of Oregon, which provides legal representation to low-income Oregonians.
As WW reported today, their bill has generated strong support and strong opposition. The concept of using uncollected damage awards comes from a draft report completed earlier this month by Campaign for Equal Justice members. It is one of the ways committee members suggested to shore up Legal Aid's flagging finances. But many business groups and the Harang Long law firm, which represents BP and Philip Morris in cases that could be impacted by the legislation, do not like the bill.
That opposition boiled up at today's lunch: when Read and Williamson arrived at the Governor Hotel for today's event, both lawmakers say they were told they were off the agenda.
"We were asked to come and speak—but when we got to the event, we were asked not to speak," Williamson says. "That was disappointing."
Williamson says that people in the room told Read the two lawmakers got bounced from the agenda because of pressure from Campaign for Equal Justice board members, who include representatives of some of the state's largest law firms.
Campaign for Equal Justice Executive Director Sandra Hansberger did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Updated at 4:18 pm:
Mark Wada, a Portland lawyer and member of the Campaign for Equal Justice board confirmed Williamson and Read were invited to speak and then uninvited.
"The representatives were invited to speak at the lunch," Wada says. "After a conversation among some board members this morning, we arrived at the conclusion this wasn't an appropriate forum. It's really an annual lunch to give awards raise money for legal aid."
Wada acknowledged disagreement over the legislation was an issue.
"There's some controversy about the bill," he says. "From the Campaign for Equal Justice perspective, we are very supportive of the use of unclaimed class action funds as a way to raise money for Legal Aid and that our legislative subcommittee supports the passage of House Bill 4143."
He declined, however to identify which law firms wanted Williamson and Read off today's agenda.
"I would rather not comment on who was involved in that conversation," Wada says.