- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

FAYETTE, Miss. (AP) — For years, juries in this rural corner of southwestern Mississippi have been willing to return multimillion-dollar verdicts, attracting lawyers who were eager to capitalize.

Lately, a different sort have been snooping around: federal agents.

The FBI wants to know how individuals became part of these lawsuits and, perhaps, how juries were picked from an area where many people are kin or acquaintances.

Perhaps the most notable jury award in Jefferson County — a poor black county of less than 10,000 residents — was $150 million given to five plaintiffs in 1999 against the makers of the diet drug fen-phen. The case was eventually settled with more than 800 other fen-phen cases for a reported $400 million.

In nearby Claiborne County, jurors in 2001 returned a $100-million award against Johnson & Johnson stemming from the heartburn drug Propulsid.

The court docket has seen fewer new cases after Mississippi legislators passed laws capping jury awards against businesses in civil cases, but officials said the cases filed before the Jan. 1 deadline will keep the docket busy for some time to come.

At least two drugstores in the area have been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury looking for patient information and possibly forged prescription records.

Investigators from the state Attorney General’s Office reportedly contacted former jurors who sued the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” after it aired a segment last November called “Jackpot Justice.” It featured former Fayette florist Beau Strittman, the recipient of an undisclosed settlement from the makers of the obesity drug Redux, who said juries had “awarded these people this money because they felt as if they were going to get a cut off of it.”

U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton said he would not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Some of the plaintiffs from the fen-phen case accuse their lawyers of lining their wallets at victims’ expense. More than a half-dozen lawsuits have been filed against several of the lawyers who went after the drug maker.

The lawyers being sued — Michael Gallagher of Houston and Dennis Sweet, Shane Langston, Richard Freese and Richard Schwartz — led the fen-phen litigation.

Two of the lawsuits contend Mr. Schwartz signed up fake clients to increase the lawyer’s portion from the settlements. Ben Skipper, Mr. Schwartz’s attorney, called the accusations “completely baseless.”

A Jackson State University employee, Kenneth Kennedy, claims he referred 70 users of the drugs fen-phen, Propulsid and Rezulin to Mr. Sweet for $150,000, plus expenses. Mr. Kennedy said he was never paid.

“I never had any contracts. I never promised any money,” Mr. Sweet said. He said his clients were referred by friends, relatives and advertisements.

Two other purported “runners” have also sued Mr. Sweet. One, Willie Anderson, said he was to receive between $1.5 million and $4 million for the cases he referred. Mr. Anderson, though, dropped the suit a day after filing it in April, saying in an affidavit that he became scared after being contacted by the FBI.

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