As the National Rifle Association embarks on court fights against state regulators and a longtime business ally, the gun group has enlisted the services of a high-powered attorney named William A. Brewer III, known for representing celebrities and huge corporate clients. But Brewer’s resume also includes a less flattering entry: a six-figure fine for attempting to improperly influence potential jurors and witnesses.
In court papers required for Brewer to represent the NRA in one of its cases, Brewer did not acknowledge the 2016 episode, falsely affirming that he has never been disciplined. He is appealing the judgment, but several legal ethicists say he nonetheless should have disclosed it, and could be kicked off the case and possibly subject to further penalty for not doing so.
“This is a serious violation,” said Roy Simon, a law professor at Hofstra University who specializes in ethics. “This is not a long-ago minor sanction that the lawyer might honestly have forgotten.”
- Update, August 15: The judge presiding over the case in which Brewer did not reveal his ethics sanction has ordered Brewer to appear before the court and explain the omission.
Brewer is working as outside counsel for the NRA in two lawsuits brought by the gun group as it tries to restore its lucrative sideline in insurance products. In the first, the group is suing Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York and the state’s Department of Financial Services, alleging that enforcement actions against Carry Guard, its self-defense insurance for gun owners, were part of a discriminatory anti-gun blacklisting campaign. That case is being heard in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, where Brewer is a member of the Bar.
In a separate case, the NRA is suing Lockton, the insurance brokerage that worked with the gun group to develop and sell Carry Guard, for breaching its contract when the company entered into an agreement with New York to drop its NRA-branded products. The second case is being heard in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where Brewer is not a member of the Bar. As in the New York case, the NRA is demanding a jury trial.
It’s in the Virginia filings that Brewer appears to have misled officials about his background.
To appear as counsel in a state where he is not licensed, Brewer had to submit what is called a “pro hac vice” application, Latin for “on this occasion only,” since the applicant is asking only to work on a single case in the jurisdiction. In the June filing he submitted to appear as an attorney for the NRA in Virginia, Brewer affirmed, “I have not been reprimanded in any court nor has there been any action in any court pertaining to my conduct or fitness as a member of the bar.” The judge in the case accepted the application two days after it was submitted.
Yet Brewer had, in fact, been reprimanded by a court for his conduct as an attorney. In 2016, records show, he was the counsel for a company called the Titeflex Corporation, which makes tubes, pipes, hoses, and other “liquid management products” for industrial clients. The company was being sued for wrongful death by the family of a Lubbock, Texas, man who died after a lightning strike at a home he was visiting ruptured Titeflex-manufactured steel pipes that carried natural gas, resulting in an explosion and fire.
Court records show that as part of his defense strategy, Brewer hired a public opinion research firm to survey Lubbock residents about the case and worked to draft the questions. The people the firm put those questions to included numerous city employees and potential witnesses and jurors in the case. The plaintiffs cried foul, convincing Judge Ruben Reyes that the survey amounted to a “push poll,” in which questions are phrased not to actually gauge opinion, but rather to put an idea into respondents’ heads.
Reyes fined Brewer $177,000, lighting into him in a letter explaining his decision.
Reyes wrote that he found Brewer’s attempt to duck accountability for his tactics “insulting,” calling Brewer’s claim of clean hands “at the very least unpersuasive and at the worst in bad faith, unprofessional, and unethical.”
He went on describe Brewer’s conduct as “disrespectful to the judicial system and threatening to the integrity of the judicial system,” placing it “in the category of misconduct which is highly prejudicial and inimical to a fair trial by an impartial jury.”
In a statement, Michael J. Collins, a partner at Brewer’s firm, wrote, “We believe that Mr. Brewer and our firm acted appropriately at all times.” Collins added: “The sanctions award, which is under review by the Supreme Court of Texas, is a matter of public record. It is appropriately disclosed as required by certain courts, and recently posed no issue with respect to Mr. Brewer being admitted to a court in another jurisdiction.”
The statement included remarks by Linda Eads, an attorney and emeritus law professor at Southern Methodist University who is advising Brewer. “No additional disclosures were required by Mr. Brewer, given the order in question remains suspended on appeal to the Supreme Court of Texas,” Eads said. “I believe Mr. Brewer was truthful in his application and the application contains no misrepresentations.”
The NRA ignored interview requests. Scott Edelman, an attorney for Lockton, declined to comment.
Experts on legal ethics dispute the conclusions of Brewer’s team, characterizing his actions in the Texas case as a significant trespass that he should have acknowledged while applying to represent the NRA.
“It would be a serious misrepresentation to the Court and a basis for denying the pro hac application,” said Ron Minkoff, a New York attorney who has served on ethics committees for the American Bar Association.
“Disclosure is always the best policy,” agreed Jonathan Smaby, the executive director of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics.
Marquette Wolf was one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the Titeflex wrongful death suit. He too is skeptical that Brewer’s omission was justified. “Mr. Brewer was found to be interfering in the plaintiffs and the other defendants’ right to a trial by an impartial jury,” Wolf said. “To represent that he’s never been sanctioned is puzzling.”
Simon, the Hofstra professor, noted that Brewer’s first attempt to appeal the disciplining he received from the Texas judge had failed. The reprimand, “which was accompanied by a harsh opinion and a six figure sanction, was affirmed only two months before the pro hac vice application,” he wrote in an email.
Simon elaborated: “He should have told the court that he has appealed the sanction and the sanction is stayed until the court rules on the appeal. Saying nothing at all was not permitted.” The proper legal protocol, Simon wrote, would be to note the penalty, then reapply should the pro hac application be denied and the disqualifying sanction later overturned by the Texas Supreme Court.
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Now that Brewer’s falsehood has come to light, Simon added, lawyers for Lockton could raise a complaint with the federal court in Virginia and try to have him booted from the case. The judge could also refer him to the Bar Associations in Texas and New York, the two states where he maintains his practice, for further investigation and possible disciplinary action. By not disclosing his past reprimand on his application to represent the NRA, Brewer may have violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Conduct, which states that a lawyer may not “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
Brewer is the sole named partner of his firm Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors, formerly Bickel and Brewer. In addition to the NRA, he has epresented high-profile clients like the 3M Corporation and the rapper 50 Cent. On his firm’s website, Brewer boasts of his “reputation as one of the most creative and successful lawyers in the United States practicing extensively in the field of complex commercial litigation.”
Wolf, the plaintiffs’ attorney who squared off against Brewer in the exploding pipeline case, was not surprised that the NRA had hired Brewer even after he had drawn such a stern penalty. “William Brewer is a brilliant attorney. They may not know about the sanction,” he said.
“But if they are aware, maybe they know exactly what they’re buying.”