SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis has been pounding away for months, trying to get federal energy regulators to help California. So have Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state legislators, to little apparent avail.
Now comes attorney Joe Cotchett, veteran trial lawyer, agreeing to represent California for $1 a month, and filing a suit that seeks to force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to set just and reasonable wholesale electricity prices.
The amount of the retainer notwithstanding, federal energy regulators may have reason to take notice. In a 35-year career, Cotchett, 62, has sued oil companies, financial institutions and tobacco companies, and defended clients as varied as E&J Gallo Winery and Consumers Union.
"I'm not looking for fees from FERC," Cotchett said. "I just want them to do their job."
Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), who along with Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) hired Cotchett, said he turned to the attorney "because he's good."
"He's a real lawyer," Burton said.
While Gov. Davis attacks the Bush administration for refusing to cap electricity prices, and California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer pursues an investigation into the pricing practices of independent power producers, Cotchett enters the fray on a significantly different tack.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday on behalf of Burton, Hertzberg and the city of Oakland, seeks an order from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals compelling FERC to set just and reasonable prices as part of an effort to end the energy crisis and threats of blackouts.
Cotchett and his co-counsel, McGeorge Law School professor Clark Kelso, are focusing on threats to health and safety of blackouts, citing, for example, the number of disabled people in the state, the number of children in day-care facilities, and the possibility that blackouts will disrupt medical care and even foul drinking water.
"I'm not going after the conspiracy to set prices," Cotchett said. "My petition is all about the threat to public safety--police, fire, people on dialysis."
FERC's spokeswoman didn't return a call Tuesday seeking comment on the suit.
In the world of trial lawyers, Cotchett is not one to trifle with. Legal publications often list him as one of the nation's top trial attorneys.
When Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis first sued the National Football League in 1981 in the Los Angeles courtroom of Judge Harry Pregerson, Cotchett represented one of the defendants, the then-Los Angeles Rams and its owner Georgia Frontiere. As he cross-examined Davis, Cotchett elicited from the football team owner that he admired aspects of Adolf Hitler.
The issue didn't have much to do with football or the case at hand. But the testimony was aimed at sullying Davis in front of jurors.
Later in the trial, Cotchett questioned Eugene Klein, then-owner of the San Diego Chargers. As the attorney bore in, Klein began sweating heavily, and his answers became labored to the point where he had to stop.
Klein survived the heart attack, and later hired Cotchett to represent him in a malicious prosecution suit against Davis. A jury awarded Klein $2 million, although an appellate court overturned the award.
"He is a superb trial lawyer, a superb appellate law who cares a lot about little people," Pregerson said. "Not only does he care, but he does something about it."
Perhaps more significantly, during the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, Cotchett was the lead lawyer against Charles H. Keating Jr. and his American Continental Corp. and Lincoln Savings & Loan.
On behalf of 23,000 people who bought junk bonds in the S&L, Cotchett and his team of lawyers won a $1.75-billion judgment--reduced from the $3.3 billion that a jury awarded--against Keating's once mighty financial empire. Also in the 1980s, he won a $147-million judgment on behalf of investors after the collapse of Technical Equities, an investment firm.
"Many of my cases have been common sense, law and justice cases that, for some reason, paid law enforcement officials don't take," Cotchett said.
More recently, he defended Consumers Union against a high-profile defamation lawsuit over a report on the Isuzu Trooper. The magazine was not held liable for damages.
"His closing argument was absolutely brilliant," said Harry Snyder, of Consumers Union and himself a lawyer. ". . . His ability and his heart were in the right place."
Cotchett's firm is representing the Los Angeles Unified School District in a suit over the Belmont Learning Complex. Cotchett, Pitre & Simon also represents the Teamsters in a suit against the tobacco industry, seeking to recover medical costs borne by the union's pension fund for tobacco-related illnesses.
Cotchett said his latest lawsuit will be tough to win, although he insists the law is on his side.
"It's clear to me that this action should have been brought some time ago," Cotchett said. "FERC has avoided the mandates of the federal power act. The federal power act makes it absolutely clear that their role is to set just and reasonable rates."