Politics

04.28.14

Chris McDaniel’s Legal Past Becomes an Issue in Mississippi Primary

Two former co-workers are raising questions about the ethics and character of the Tea Party’s most promising Senate primary challenger.

The Tea Party’s most credible challenger of an incumbent this election cycle is now facing stinging criticism from within his own inner circle.

Former co-workers of Chris McDaniel, who is taking on longtime Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, are going public with their descriptions of the candidate as “very selfish” and a “pathological narcissist,” and questioning his lavish spending on sports tickets and friends while pursuing a lawsuit for a family member.

McDaniel, who is backed by major outside groups like Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, has long been considered the Tea Party’s best hope to knock off an incumbent Republican senator in a primary this cycle. McDaniel’s poll numbers, though, have lagged recently as audio from his career as a right-wing radio host has been unearthed, featuring a series of racially charged and otherwise controversial comments.

While McDaniel’s comments on his radio show have raised eyebrows, his interactions with co-workers during his legal career are now also raising questions about the Senate hopeful’s temperament as well.

With the exception of a stint working for a plaintiff’s attorney in Hattiesburg named Mike Sims, McDaniel has spent most of his legal career at Hortman Harlow, a Laurel, Mississippi-based firm that mostly does defense-side work. While there, McDaniel’s behavior left one former law partner, Dave Martindale, aghast, particularly in regard to his handling of a personal-injury lawsuit brought by his cousin, Billy Jack McDaniel, an oil rig worker.

According to Martindale, McDaniel was spending huge amounts of money on the case, including traveling around the country to meet with experts in cities where McDaniel “wanted to see professional ballgames,” as well as hiring friends in San Antonio to serve as local counsel on the case. The problem with that: The suit was being heard 200 miles away in Houston.

Martindale said Hortman Harlow dismissed him from the firm for repeatedly raising concerns about expenditures on the case, which eventually was settled for more than $7 million. He also lost out on his share of that settlement as well as reimbursement for costs paid out of his pocket on the case.

If it was her cousin, Morris said, she “would be cutting everything she could and keeping the costs down for his benefit.”

Despite the costs, Billy Jack McDaniel was happy with his representation. In a statement to The Daily Beast, he wrote:

“Chris is a defense attorney, but made a special exception for me. He accepted my plaintiff’s case because I am his first cousin, and family means a great deal.… Chris represented my family extremely capably, and I’m proud he chose to do it. What Chris McDaniel did for me ensured my family’s future.”

McDaniel remains a lawyer with Hortman Harlow, and serves in the Mississippi state senate.

Reached Friday, the McDaniel campaign rejected Martindale’s account, and suggested Sen. Cochran’s staff was somehow behind the dispute now coming to light.

Noel Fritsch, a McDaniel spokesman, said “The partners at Hortman Harlow voted unanimously to release Dave Martindale for personnel reasons the firm is not at liberty to disclose. Martindale subsequently sued the firm, and his frivolous suit was dismissed at every level in the civil judicial process: at trial court, appeals court, and the supreme court. This is just more mud-throwing by Thad Cochran to cover up his liberal record of caving to President Obama on Obamacare and raising Mississippi’s taxes.​”

The Cochran campaign used the airing of old grievances as an opportunity to push back at McDaniel. ”Whether it’s his record in the state senate, his time as radio show host, or his career as a trial lawyer, Chris McDaniel’s background is full of unanswered questions,” said Jordan Russell, a Cochran spokesman.

To be sure, Martindale acknowledged to The Daily Beast that there might be some sour grapes over his dismissal from the firm, which left him in difficult financial straits and forced him to start over again as a solo practitioner in his native Texas. His dismissal from the firm resulted in a legal battle (PDF) between him and the remaining partners at Hortman Harlow—instigated when the firm filed suit against him, in a case that ended up in the state court of appeals, where Martindale eventually lost his case in a split opinion.

Looking back, Martindale said he thought that while McDaniel was clearly a “smart guy,” his former law partner was also a “pathological narcissist” who refused to even pay his gambling debts in an office football pool. Martindale, a registered Democrat, said he shuddered at the thought of McDaniel in elected office, “I’d hate to see a U.S. senator with that kind of power with the mentality of Chris McDaniel. That would be tragic for Mississippi and that would be tragic for the country.”

Martindale isn’t the only former Hortman Harlow employee with concerns. Jamie Morris, his former paralegal, echoed his concerns about McDaniel’s selfish personality and overspending on the lawsuit. She was dismissed from the firm at the same time as Martindale and worked extensively on the Billy Jack McDaniel case.

Morris is a conservative Republican who listened to McDaniel’s radio show and “found him to be truly conservative, very pro-Constitution, and pro-Bill of Rights.” Still, in her opinion, McDaniel “can be a very selfish, self-centered person, interested in what’s best for Chris and what’s going to benefit Chris.”

She was particularly concerned about McDaniel’s excessive spending on the case because “this was a family member that he was trying to ‘help.’ If you look at it that way, the money that was being spent, a lot of it was unnecessary to the ultimate goal and it cost a lot of money to get there, especially for a family member.” If it was her cousin, she “would be cutting everything she could and keeping the costs down for his benefit.” Morris continued, “I know he was trying to help him and he deserved some compensation for his injury and just wondering about how he went about it.”

Yet, after all this, Morris said she is “torn between the person and the party,” and still might vote for Chris McDaniel.

“I’m torn and not decided who I’m voting for because I have concerns about both candidates,” she said. “I don’t want my personal opinion to skew what the real issues are, but it’s hard to separate those two especially.”