How a Kentucky Solo Exposed the Fen-Phen Lawyers
Posted Sep 8, 2009 7:36 AM CST
By Debra Cassens Weiss
The exposure of the fen-phen lawyers accused of bilking their clients out of $94 million in settlement money began in 2004 when a woman walked into the office of Lexington, Ky., solo Angela Ford.
The woman wanted to know whether a lawyer could give away settlement money without her consent, the Courier-Journal reports. Ford promised to check it out, and went to look through the court papers.
“She said she immediately saw red flags,” the newspaper reports. “There was a flurry of motions after the case should have been over. And the lawyers had transferred an unspecified sum into a charitable fund they called the Kentucky Fund for Healthy Living, formed to support health care issues—and were paying themselves an undisclosed sum to run it.”
Five years later, two of the lawyers, Shirley Cunningham Jr. and William Gallion, were sentenced to prison terms of 20 to 25 years for keeping about $94 million in settlement money for themselves and putting another $20 million into a charity they controlled. Ford has recovered $23 million for her clients after suing the lawyers, and is still trying to locate and obtain assets, including the defendants’ stake in the racehorse Curlin. A third lawyer was acquitted.
Many believe the criminal case against the lawyers would not have been brought without Ford's suit against them and others, including the judge who approved the settlement. As more clients joined the case, Ford says she was swamped with work. “I felt overwhelmed for the first few years,” she told the Courier-Journal. “I worked seven days a week.”
Ford worked alone on the case for four years without making any money. She used savings to pay her living expenses and the paychecks of her only employees, a paralegal and a secretary, according to the story. Eventually she retained other lawyers to help. Her living expenses are evidently low; Ford still lives in a 1,368-square-foot home she bought in 1985 for $77,000 and just recently replaced the Acura she had driven for years with a new Lexus.
The newspaper describes Ford as 5-foot-3 and just over 100 pounds. She was once "painfully shy" and had disliked school, making only Bs and Cs in high school. But she held her own in dinner table conversations with her seven siblings and eventually became the first female student government president at the University of Louisville.
Previously, her biggest settlement came in 2003 when she obtained $4.4 million on behalf of 18 people who had accused six priests of sexual abuse.
New Orleans lawyer John Cummings III, the co-lead counsel in the fen-phen case, told the newspaper he sent Ford an alligator’s head to symbolize her ferocity. The head now sits on the floor of Ford’s office.
“I told her that if I ever saw her in a wrassling match with an alligator,” Cumming said, “I would help the alligator, to make it an equal fight.”