In the early ’90s, Big Tobacco was making a killing. There was no entity more powerful, and national tobacco-related deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands each year. The economic loss from smoking-related illnesses was billions of dollars. And yet, Big Tobacco had never paid a nickel in court.
Until one Southern, small-town lawyer figured out how Florida could sue Big Tobacco to reimburse the state for health care costs. The end result? Beyond the $13 billion settlement, hundreds of thousands of American lives have been, and will continue to be, saved.
Meet Fred Levin. Called by his own son “a philanthropist and a cockroach,” Fred Levin is no ordinary attorney, and his remarkable story is far from squeaky clean.
In And Give Up Showbiz?, New York Times bestselling author Josh Young works closely with Levin to give readers a glimpse into the extraordinary and entertaining life of the top trial lawyer who was a pioneer in establishing American personal injury law. Seen as an inspiring innovator by some and a flamboyant self-promoter by others, Levin has not only fought against Big Tobacco, he has won victories for women, African Americans, and workers everywhere.
Levin’s unprecedented legal career is just one aspect of his roller-coaster life story. From managing one of the world’s greatest boxers to avoiding multiple disbarment attempts, and from becoming a chief in the country of
Ghana to even being a person of interest in two separate murder investigations, his story reads like a novel suitable for the silver screen. And Give Up Showbiz? is both shockingly candid and wildly funny.
|Publisher:||BenBella Books, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Josh Young is a bestselling author whose works spans entertainment, business, politics, science and natural history. He has coauthored five New York Times bestsellers and two national bestsellers. He is the coauthor of comedian Howie Mandel's Here's The Deal: Don't Touch Me, You're Only As Good As Your Next One with Mike Medavoy, Dr. Sam Parnia’s Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting The Boundaries Between Life And Death, and The Link: Uncovering Our Oldest Ancestor with Colin Tudge, which has been translated into five languages. Additionally, he is the coauthor of Pure Imagination: The Making of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' and David Attenborough's First Life: A Journey Back in Time with Matt Kaplan. On the film side, Josh served as Production Consultant on White House Down (June 2013). As a journalist, Josh has contributed to George magazine, Entertainment Weekly, LIFE magazine, The New York Times Sunday, The New Republic, Details, The (London) Sunday Telegraph, and Los Angeles.
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Payback, Levin Style
The University of Florida Law School is a sacred institution to the lawyers in the state. No other law school in the country has produced as many presidents of the Florida Bar Association and, since 1973, of the American Bar Association. The law school has produced more governors of the state of Florida than any other. More than 250 of its graduates serve as state appellate and trial judges. So if you practice law in the state of Florida, it is likely that you, your partner, your opponent, or the judge you are arguing before — or perhaps all of the above — are Gator law school alums.
Today, a brick wall flanked by two cement columns in front of the law school at the University of Florida bears the words "Fredric G. Levin College of Law." To the uninitiated observer who has visited most any university campus, this would seem a rather innocuous, perhaps even quaint, tradition. At major universities across the country, schools and buildings have been named after distinguished alumni or wealthy donors — the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and many others. But placing this lawyer's name on this brick wall in front of this law school in 1999 created a firestorm filled with ironies and repercussions that were extreme even for the sun-soaked crazies in Florida.
For starters, Fred Levin would not be admitted today to the law school that bears his name. Grades and entrance exams almost entirely dictate admissions now. Fred was a mediocre student; in fact, he had to attend summer school to lift his middling GPA over 2.0 to earn his undergraduate diploma so he could enroll at law school. In those days, law schools accepted most every applicant and then weeded out the deadbeats.
When Fred entered law school in 1958, he had a reputation as a partier and a poor student. The smarter students would "dis" the dumber ones by shuffling their feet on the floor when one of the latter attempted to speak, like prison inmates protesting a bad meal. In his freshman year, Fred was one of the two most shuffled people in his class, the other being George Starke, the first African American to enter any Florida public university (prior to that year, state law had banned black students). Fred turned things around and ended up third in his class. Though the shuffling stopped, he never forgot the feeling of being mocked by his classmates.
Oddly enough, Fred never intended to put his name on the law school, but when the opportunity came along, it was too delicious for him to pass up. Yes, Fred felt that he owed a great deal to the University of Florida Law School for educating him and teaching him to love the law. He was already a benefactor. His brother David, his law partner Lefferts Mabie, and Fred had donated some waterfront property they owned south of Tallahassee to the law school, which had sold the land for $1.2 million. In return for the gift, the law school named its dean the "Levin, Mabie and Levin Professor."
In December 1998, that professorship was held by Richard Matasar, who came to see Fred in Pensacola. Matasar and Jeff Ulmer, a fundraiser for the law school, were making the rounds of deep-pocketed donors to ask for help with the current fundraising campaign. They wanted to enlist Fred's help in asking an attorney friend of his, Bob Montgomery, to give $6 million to the law school. In exchange, they told Fred, the university was prepared to name a beautiful new building for Bob. During the meeting, one of them quipped to Fred, "Heck, tell him for $10 million we'll name the whole school for him."
The wheels immediately began turning in Fred's head. At the time, he was expecting an eight-figure check from the Florida tobacco settlement. It was a Champagne problem: Fred would soon have more money than he or his family would ever need. His mind raced through the ramifications of using some of the tobacco fee money to put his name on the University of Florida Law School. Giving the money to the law school would help with its quest to build prestige in an increasingly competitive world. Under Florida law, the school would also receive matching funds from the state, so a $10 million gift was actually worth $20 million.
But there was another angle. Putting his name on the law school would give Fred a little payback to the Florida Bar, and that might have been more appealing to him than the legacy. Fred felt that the old guard on the Florida Bar had been trying to tear him down for years. Thrice they had him brought up on formal charges and tried to have him disbarred. The first time was for gambling on football games, then going on his cable access channel, BLAB-TV, and saying he saw nothing wrong with it — despite the fact that it was a misdemeanor. The result was a slap on the wrist. The second time was for violating the ethics rule on interjecting personal statements into a trial. That stemmed from him calling his opponent's case "ridiculous" in two different trials. He was acquitted on that charge. And the third time was for him lambasting a judge's ruling. Again, he escaped.
So, after fifteen minutes of running these thoughts through his head, Fred told Matasar and Ulmer that he might give them the $10 million himself; first he needed to check with his tax lawyer. "They were stunned," Fred recalls. "It was as if I had shot both of them right between the eyes."
Fred suggested they all meet later that afternoon at Skopelos on the Bay Seafood & Steak restaurant in Pensacola to discuss the situation further. In the meantime, Matasar agreed to verify the naming arrangement with John Lombardi, the university's president.
After Fred's tax lawyer gave his okay, Fred and his son and law partner, Martin, met Matasar and Ulmer at Skopelos and sealed the deal over drinks. Matasar and Ulmer were thrilled. It was doubtful that anybody had ever contributed such a large amount of money to any school in such a short period.
Fred's gift was the largest cash contribution that the 146-year-old university had received. In return, the University of Florida law school would be known as the Fredric G. Levin College of Law, or the Levin College of Law for short — in perpetuity.
"The truth is that the Florida Bar and Big Tobacco were equally to thank for my $10 million donation," Fred says. "The fuddy-duddies at the Bar had perpetually irritated me with their pettiness. Big Tobacco provided the money. I was glad to give it to a school that had played such a big part in shaping my life. Really, it wasn't just my life, but my brothers' lives and my children's lives, too. To me, the funniest thing of all is that the school hadn't even targeted me for the donation, which I had essentially given on impulse."
Next came the deluge. Critics popped up from the Panhandle to the Florida Keys to Amelia Island. There was a blistering war of words in private and in print. Many people claimed to be horrified that the law school would put Fred Levin's name on it. The fact of the matter was that Fred was not one of them. Not only was he an outsider, he was an outsider who took great joy in needling the Establishment.
Two big checks, thanks to the Big Tobacco settlement: $10 million to the law school, $2 million to local charities.
Some of Fred's friends believed opposition to the naming was rooted in anti-Semitism, as Matasar was also Jewish. Florida Senate President W. D. Childers (and Fred's friend) asked reporters, "Isn't it amazing that any time some honor comes to a black or a Jew, they come running out of the country clubs to complain?"
Steve Yerrid, one of the lawyers who Fred brought aboard the legal team to sue Big Tobacco, recalls receiving a phone call from an attorney who complained that Fred was Jewish. "A redneck lawyer called me up and said, 'I don't think it's right that a Jew would have a law school named after him down here. I want you to talk to Fred about taking his name off the law school.'" Yerrid told the attorney that he was disgusted by his phone call. He added: "But I have an idea. If you don't like his name on the law school, why don't you put up the fucking $10 million?" It was the last time Yerrid talked to the lawyer.
While there may be some deep-rooted truth to the anti-Semitism charges, Fred never thought it was anti-Semitism, merely anti-Levinism. "I admit that I brought some of this on myself," Fred says. "Part of this was my fault for being such a self-promoter. Part of it was animosity over my success."
At the time, Fred held the records for money awarded for the wrongful death of a housewife, the wrongful death of a wage earner, the wrongful death of a child, the wrongful death of an African American, and the highest personal injury award in Florida. Remarkably, he had won most of those verdicts in one of the most conservative areas of the country.
Many lawyers rankled at the elite political connections that Fred used to benefit his practice. The chattering class in Tallahassee would complain that Fred could pull strings at the statehouse through his connections with Governor Lawton Chiles, Florida Senate President W. D. Childers, and former governor Reubin Askew, who had cofounded the Levin law firm. At every turn, Fred encouraged the perception that he was a political power.
"Of course, when they wanted something done in the legislature, they would come to me and ask, 'Can you please talk to W. D. for us?'" Fred says. "The truth is that I wasn't a great political power broker, even though there was a perception that I was. I admit I encouraged it because it was good for my image and even better for business."
In addition to Fred's legal victories, his squabbles with the Florida Bar, and his political ties, he became ubiquitous for his other activities. He owned several restaurants and a string of women's clothing stores, and most notably, he managed Roy Jones Jr., who had become known in the world of boxing as the best pound-for-pound fighter. Jones was the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council Light Heavyweight champion and had lost only one fight, on a controversial disqualification. Fred became so well known in boxing circles that he was approached to manage Ghana's Ike Quartey, as well as other soonto-be champions. For his work, he was given the Rocky Marciano Award as national boxing manager of the year in 1994, and named the Boxing Writers Association of America manager of the year in 1995.
While the issue was partly that Fred was so successful in other arenas, it was mostly the way he shamelessly flaunted that success. Any time there was an HBO camera near Roy Jones Jr., Fred could be seen hugging his client or raising his arm. He had his own TV show on his own local cable channel. His picture regularly appeared in state and national magazines.
Every major newspaper in the state covered the law school naming controversy, and several took firm positions. The Florida Times-Union ran an editorial entitled "Law: The Name Game" on January 15, 1999, asking the university to reconsider the "hasty decision." It characterized Fred's legal record as "blemished" and called Fred "the key figure in one of the state government's worst legislative moments," referring to the law Fred had gotten changed so Big Tobacco could be sued.
In a follow-up article, headlined "New Law School Name Angers Some Alumni," several alumni declared they would no longer contribute to the law school. Former Florida Bar president Rutledge Liles told the paper: "I am in the column of being heartsick about it. There are certain things that are not for sale. The college of law has built itself a fine reputation. To come in and change the name, to me is deplorable." Next to the headline was a picture of Fred with a shit-eating grin on his face.
The Pensacola News Journal, however, ran an editorial lauding the gift, writing that the controversy should not detract from Fred's "extraordinary and generous gesture" that meant a brighter future for the law school.
A Miami Herald article headlined "Controversy Loves Lawyer Whose Name Is on School" quoted former Florida Bar president John DeVault as saying that school officials had sent a message "that money transcends professionalism." Florida State Representative Tom Warner told the Gainesville Sun, "I think it's inappropriate. I am offended by it."
The letters sent back and forth between Fred's critics and the university read like a bunch of high school kids fighting it out. James Rinaman Jr., a lawyer in Jacksonville, fired off a letter to Dean Matasar saying that naming the law school after Fred "demeans the efforts of the many deans, faculty, and alumni who have worked for so many years to achieve the vision of making our college one of the top twenty law schools." He said Fred's comment in one article about spitting at the Florida Bar — a little too much, Fred now admits — "exemplifies his sneering, cynical, and selfish approach to the practice and the profession."
There was more. Rinaman went on to tell Matasar that the dean had "degraded the image and prestige" of the law school by "selling its good name to Fred Levin, a lawyer who has been castigated by the courts for abusing the rules and is notorious for commercializing the practice, thumbing his nose at the Bar, and otherwise manipulating the system." He questioned Matasar's "authority" and "hubris" to take such an action without a consensus of former deans, faculty, the alumni council, and the Board of Regents.
Rinaman now says he was angered by an interview Fred gave to the Florida Bar News about the gift, in which Fred underscored that part of the reason for the gift was retribution. Fred told the magazine, "I said, 'I'm going to give the money away anyway and what a wonderful gesture for the Bar to see my name there.' Maybe it's not a nice thing to say, but had the Bar not jumped on me for what I consider to be three incredible grievances, I probably would have given this money to other charities."
Admittedly, that's not the noblest way to give a gift.
But Fred had his defenders. His friend Bob Montgomery, the philanthropist and lawyer from West Palm Beach who he was supposed to help target for the donation, wrote back and said that Rinaman's letter was "revolting, ugly and offensive." He called Rinaman "a narrow-minded insurance shill" and said that Rinaman was allied with his "silk-stocking, holier-than-thou jackass friends" — this in a letter written to the president of the university.
Rollin Davis, a Pensacola lawyer and law school alum, declared: "If he gave $10 million, that's 10 million good reasons" to name the law school after him. Chesterfield Smith, a former president of the American Bar Association, called it a "magnificent act." Reubin Askew, the very popular former governor, said that it was "a tremendous thing for the law school" and called Fred "one of the most outstanding lawyers in the country." (In addition to being a founding partner of Levin's firm, Askew was a close friend of the Levin family and was the beneficiary of Fred's largesse when he was running for governor. Nevertheless, his opinion carried a great deal of weight with average Floridians.)
Naturally, Fred couldn't resist the opportunity to enter the fray. He wrote a long letter noting his accomplishments, which were considerably more extensive than those of his detractors. First, he defended himself against the Bar's charges and detailed the luminaries who had testified at his public hearing that he had done nothing unethical: Florida State University president Sandy D'Alemberte, famed attorney J. B. Spence, Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees, and the American Bar Association's ethics committee chairman, Larry Fox. Fred pointed out that both the Florida Supreme Court and the hearing's referee agreed with his witnesses. At the grievance hearing, it was noted that Fred was also the largest contributor to the United Way and cerebral palsy research in Northwest Florida. And by the way, he added, he had recently given $2 million to a foundation to benefit children in his community.
In his letter, Rinaman had asked how the university could explain to its students why the college of law was named after Fred Levin. Fred gladly provided the talking points. For starters, he pointed out that the university asked him for the contribution, not the other way around, and that it was the largest ever made to the university and the second largest to a public law school in the country. His family's long tradition at the university was plainly evident. All five Levin brothers had received degrees there, three of them law degrees. All four of Fred's children had degrees from the university as well. His daughter Marci had graduated law school with honors, and his son, Martin, was first in his law class. On his own standing, Fred sarcastically conceded, "I do not belong to any yacht club or country clubs so I apologize for not having the right social connections."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "And Give Up Showbiz?"
Copyright © 2014 Josh Young.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Searching for Atticus Finch xiii
Chapter 1 Payback, Levin Style 1
Chapter 2 Bending the Rules to the Breaking Point 15
Chapter 3 Chasing the Ambulance 31
Chapter 4 The Case That Landed Fred Levin in US Magazine 41
Chapter 5 Winning Over Everybody 57
Chapter 6 "Home Sweet Home" 73
Chapter 7 Perry Mason Moments 91
Chapter 8 Wheeling and Dealing Justice 99
Chapter 9 From Barbecue to BLAB TV: Birth of an Entrepreneur 109
Chapter 10 In the Center of the Ring 123
Chapter 11 A Good Old Fashioned Southern Mystery 143
Chapter 12 Prosecuting Fred Levin 155
Chapter 13 Up in Smoke 169
Chapter 14 Fred Levin's Presidential "Wall of Fame" 181
Chapter 15 Lady Justice Removes Her Blindfold 191
Chapter 16 Mass Torts: One Case, One Thousand Clients 201
Epilogue: The Aging Elephant in the Circus 211
About the Author 235