Back in April, amid a growing legal battle over the responsibility of Texas hospitals to keep bad doctors from operating, Attorney General Greg Abbott took a bold stand. He sided with Baylor Health Care System in federal lawsuits filed by three plaintiffs who are former patients of the notorious Dallas spine surgeon Christopher Duntsch. The plaintiffs are arguing that Duntsch was a known drug addict and a dangerously incompetent surgeon, and Baylor should have never let him operate. (The shocking story of how Duntsch got away with maiming and killing his patients is detailed in this Observer story from last year.) Their lawsuits challenge a 2003 Texas law that grants hospitals near-total legal immunity for the mistakes of doctors they allow to operate.
How immune are hospitals? Under the current law, for Baylor to be liable for Duntsch’s mistakes, the plaintiffs have to prove that hospital administrators let him operate because they specifically intended to harm patients.
Soon after the three plaintiffs sued, Abbott’s office announced that it would be jumping in to defend the statute that shielded Baylor. In statements at the time, the attorney general’s office was clear: Abbott wasn’t defending Baylor or Duntsch. He was simply defending state law.
Earlier this week, Wayne Slater at the Dallas Morning News suggested that Abbott may have had other incentives to intervene. In June 2013 and January 2014 Abbott received two large donations to his gubernatorial campaign—$100,000 and $250,000 respectively—from one Drayton McLane, a Temple transportation exec and Republican who is also the chairman of the the board of trustees for Baylor Scott & White, the company that owns the Baylor hospital system.
The timing is a little suspicious. The $100,000 donation came the day after the Texas Medical Board suspended Duntsch’s license, ending an 18-month surgical career that had left two dead and many more paralyzed or in chronic pain. The $250,000 donation came the week after the second of the threelawsuits.
McLane has given Abbott money before, but it’s generally been much less; the most he had given in the past, according to the campaign filings the Morning News references, was $25,000.
This is not the first time that Abbott’s political donations have been linked to his official capacities as attorney general:
Abbott authorized scores of state bond issues in which he has received more than $200,000 from the political committees of law firms serving as bond counsel.
Earlier this year, Abbott ruled that the public cannot have access to state information about the location of potentially dangerous chemicals like those that caused the 2013 explosion in West that killed 15 people. The ruling came after Abbott received $75,000 from the Koch Industries political committee and executives, including the head of the company’s fertilizer division.
Abbott has collected more than $75,000 in the governor’s race from the Farmers Insurance political committee amid criticism that a proposed settlement in a long-running lawsuit against Farmers doesn’t adequately compensate homeowners for being overcharged.
So did Drayton McLane buy Abbott’s intervention in the Baylor case with $350,000 of his own money?
Abbott and McLane say there’s no connection between the donations and the intervention of the state in the Baylor case. McLane told the Dallas Morning News that he has no financial stake in Baylor Scott & White; that his chairman position is unpaid, and that he didn’t even know about the Duntsch case before giving Abbott money.
McLane further explains: “When you look at my cumulative donations over the years, I have supported other Texas candidates, whom I believe in, similarly to how I have chosen to support General Abbott.”
But it is a lot of cash. McLane gave Rick Perry less in his entire gubernatorial career than he gave Abbott just in the last year.
Abbott may have other reasons for so aggressively siding with Baylor and Duntsch. Tort reform, the conservative movement to make it much more difficult for people to win big judgments in civil courts, has been a centerpiece of Abbott’s political career. With the 2003 omnibus tort reform bill–as well as a number of favorable Texas Supreme Court decisions that limited hospital liability to an absurd degree—the movement won big.
And now, in the suits against Christopher Duntsch and Baylor, we have several particularly egregious, media-ready cases that are directly threatening one of the outposts of the tort reform bill: hospital immunity. If this part falls, there’s no telling what falls next—that is one lesson of the staggeringly quick collapse of the civil court system in the tort reform era. So, it is a little hard to believe that the prospect of tort reform fraying around the edges motivates Greg Abbott less than $350,000 in campaign money.