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When J. Kent Friedman bade his firm farewell last December, his partners toasted his good fortune and gave him a going-away present heavy with symbolism: a sword-shaped golden letter opener plunged into a crystal rock. A Steuben glass design, it’s a corporate version of King Arthur’s Excalibur sword. And a fitting gift for Friedman: local hero, crusading liberal Democrat, and one of 20 founders of the firm — Houston’s Mayor Day, Caldwell & Keeton — that in the early days they called “Camelot.” In the legend of Arthur, explains partner Richard Caldwell, “only a person of great moral integrity could extract [the sword]. That’s Kenny.” It’s a nice image, and one that has been buffed for two decades by Friedman’s very public support of liberal African American politicians in Texas. But in private practice, far from the jousting of the Lone Star State’s political wars, Friedman was the lawyer to one of the nation’s most reviled corporate chieftains: Charles Hurwitz. And when Friedman left his Camelot, it was to devote himself and his sword full-time to Hurwitz’s empire of notorious businesses: MAXXAM Inc. Together they now defend The Pacific Lumber Company, a logging company, paid for largely with junk bonds, that enrages environmentalists by cutting down ancient redwoods in Northern California. Another subsidiary, an aluminum manufacturer, is beset by labor disputes and asbestos litigation. A Hurwitz-controlled savings and loan in Texas imploded in one of the most spectacular and costly failures of the eighties, but its legal and financial mess lingers on. And presiding over it all is a board of directors that Fortune magazine calls one of the six worst in the country, a board that Friedman joined when he made Maxxam his home. With this many targets pasted to its back, Maxxam has enough enemies to rival a meeting of the World Trade Organization — unions, banking regulators, environmentalists, lawmakers, and plaintiffs lawyers throughout the land. One of its best- known foes is Julia “Butterfly” Hill, who built a treehouse in one of Hurwitz’s redwoods in Scotia, California, named the tree “Luna,” and refused to budge for more than two years. So what’s a famously nice guy like Kent Friedman doing as general counsel at a company like this? “Well,” says Friedman with a sparkle in his eye, “I’m a capitalist.” And a successful one. In addition to a cash compensation considerably more than his over $700,000 draw at Mayor Day, Friedman’s stock options exceed $1 million in Maxxam and subsidiary, Kaiser Aluminum Corporation. The stock’s value is jeopardized by a falling market; Maxxam’s share price is down 50 percent in the last year, but that’s the sort of risk that a capitalist understands. Friedman makes no apologies for Hurwitz, who is a relative of Friedman’s first wife. Using that connection, Friedman brought Hurwitz’s business to his first firm, Butler & Binion, and took it with him to Mayor Day. Maxxam remains one of Mayor Day’s ten largest clients. What separates Friedman from other lawyers who defend the rich and unpopular is his devotion to the not-rich and unpopular. He served as campaign manager for the left-leaning Mickey Leland back when the now-deceased congressman was as loathed by Houston’s white business leaders as Hurwitz is now by Butterfly. He also campaigned for other trailblazers: Lee Brown, the current Houston mayor and first African American to hold that position; for El Franco Lee, the first African American elected court commissioner in Harris County; and for Eleanor Tinsley, who became the first woman holding an at-large seat on the Houston city council. To this day Friedman runs Leland’s foundation, an inner-city summer program for high school students. This is not charity on paper only. Friedman meets and helps select the ten students Leland’s fund sends to Israel each summer. Is he leading a life of contradictions? No more than any other lawyer determined to defend his client, Friedman says. However much Friedman might like to go against the odds, the challenge he’s taken at Maxxam is formidable. He’s become the self-described “consigliere” to a man routinely characterized by his enemies as “evil” and “the devil.” An Internet site created by one environmental activist offers a $50,000 prize to anyone who can provide information leading to a criminal indictment for Hurwitz (www.jailhurwitz.com). Another environmentalist hurled a pie at Hurwitz in San Francisco in 1997. Hurwitz defies them all. While Butterfly protested for two years to save the life of one tree, Hurwitz used chopped-down redwood to create the mammoth bookcases and paneling of what he unapologetically calls “The Redwood Room” at the company’s headquarters in Houston. This conference room just might be the most beautiful in corporate America. Maxxam staff literally sigh over its luxuriousness. Deep, vibrant sienna wood gleams with the light from a wall of windows. Adjoining Hurwitz’s corner office, it feels like a sanctuary. Inside, at the black marble conference table, Hurwitz shows off Maxxam’s special knickknacks. A life-size statue of a spotted owl watches over the Redwood Room. The spotted owl is one of the endangered species that makes its home in and around Pacific Lumber’s forest in Northern California’s Humboldt County. “People were always giving us [toy] owls as a joke,” says former Maxxam general counsel Anthony Pierno. Hurwitz — a tall man in a crisp, dark pinstripe — is quietly charming. “Courtly,” says former Houston mayor Bob Lanier, friend to both Friedman and Hurwitz. The 60-year-old chairman and CEO of the company, which had net sales of $2.3 billion last year, rarely talks to reporters; when he does, his speech is guarded, slow. Among friends, says Lanier, Hurwitz has “an easy laugh.” An ironic sense of humor peeks through even in a press interview. Seated in the Redwood Room, Hurwitz points to a riding crop from the Sam Houston Race Track, of which Maxxam owns about 99 percent. “Contrary to what some people say, we don’t whip people with that,” he says, deadpan. Says David Griffith, a Mayor Day partner and Hurwitz’s outside counsel in the savings and loan case: “[Hurwitz will] crack a smile — but not before you break a sweat.” In contrast, Friedman is more relaxed and personable, literally slapping colleagues on the back, asking, “how ya doin’?” in the corporate hallways. A former baseball player who went on a sports scholarship to Tulane University (where he also got his law degree), Friedman’s quick smile is broad and warm. At 56, he is the father of four grown children from his first marriage and a 4-year-old son from his second. For Halloween at Maxxam, Friedman initiated an “Addams Family” costume contest and dressed in a maroon smoking jacket to play the character Gomez. (Hurwitz, sans costume, judged the contest.) With the media, Friedman’s extensive experience shows. He’s comfortable and agile. On the job, colleagues say, Friedman is firm but calm. “He stands his ground,” says Joli Pecht, a Maxxam litigator. “I’ve never heard him raise his voice.” It will take all of Friedman’s patience and skill to untangle Maxxam’s legal web — and perhaps refurbish Hurwitz’s public image, if that is possible. But Friedman says he prefers to do so in-house. “When you’re in a law firm you’re in the implementation business. Other people make decisions, and you get them done,” he explains. Now Friedman calls the shots, leading a team of ten in-house lawyers in Houston. Friedman also fills one of two new spots on Maxxam’s now seven-member board of directors, which had been criticized in part for being too small and beholden to Hurwitz. Many of those decisions these days, as well as most of Friedman’s business travel and phone calls, relate to one of the company’s key subsidiaries: Kaiser Aluminum Corporation, also based in Houston. Friedman oversees 54 outside law firms in 43 states seeking to resolve more than 100,000 asbestos suits related to the company’s old aluminum manufacturing facilities. “Some of these people are really sick and should get the money,” says Friedman. But their cases are bundled with healthy plaintiffs with false claims, he says. Kaiser, which brought in about $2 billion in sales last year, spent $11 million on outside legal fees last year defending itself in asbestos cases alone. “The system doesn’t work” for resolving these cases, says Friedman, and laborious, expensive trials rarely result in getting money quickly to sick plaintiffs. “It’s embarrassing, frankly, to be a part of it,” he says. Unfortunately, that’s not the only Kaiser problem on Friedman’s plate. Tragedy piled upon tragedy. While former employees wheezed with asbestosis, several plant workers were burned — another man’s eyes were severely injured and possibly blinded — by boiling lye in an explosion at a plant in Gramercy, La., last July. Another 16,000 people in and around Gramercy, located about an hour south of New Orleans, filed suits claiming damage to their health and property. Their representatives and Kaiser have been in mediation since last fall, trying to reach a settlement. Neither side will comment on how much the plaintiffs are demanding. But, says one plaintiffs lawyer, the difference between what Kaiser is offering and what plaintiffs want is $25 million. Friedman oversees Dale Head, the Kaiser lawyer who handles these matters, among others. He checks in regularly with Kaiser’s outside counsel. The company is now rebuilding the damaged Gramercy plant, and the project requires Friedman to oversee the building contracts and environmental compliance work. Ironically, because of yet another controversy, the plant’s regular staff were spared from the blast. More than 3,000 steelworkers in three states have been locked out of Kaiser’s plants since mid-January after they went on strike over pay, benefits, and job security. Friedman and his outside counsel at Chicago’s Seyfarth Shaw still are haggling with United Steel Workers Association union leaders trying to resolve that mess. When Friedman is not fighting unions, blast victims, or environmentalists, he’s busy staving off the federal banking regulators swarming over Hurwitz’s S&L debacle. In 1995 the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the banking regulator that investigates failed savings and loans, sued Hurwitz, claiming that he’d mismanaged the S&L, Houston’s United Savings Association of Texas, and caused its $1.6 billion downfall. Maxxam claims that Hurwitz did not run the thrift on a day-to-day basis, and, even if he had, he wasn’t personally responsible for the collapse. The FDIC has put that suit on hold while its sister agency, the Office of Thrift Supervision, drags Maxxam through an administrative proceeding over the same issue. The OTS director will likely rule in favor of the OTS, says Hurwitz’s outside lawyer in these matters, Richard Keeton of Mayor Day. Maxxam plans to appeal to the federal courts. Maxxam has spent more than $30 million in defending against the two suits. OTS is seeking in excess of $800 million in restitution plus $4.5 million in civil penalties. Also on Friedman’s to-do list is Pacific Lumber, which had $4.1 million in 1999 operating income. Northern California environmentalist groups such as Earth First! and the Environmental Protection Information Center have attacked Hurwitz ever since he took over the company in 1985 — and promptly doubled the pace of its redwood harvesting. Environmentalists have long tried to link their tree battle to Hurwitz’s S&L woes, lobbying the U.S. government to force Hurwitz to give away Pacific Lumber’s timberland as restitution to tax payers for the S&L’s alleged squandering of $1.6 billion in federal funds. The proposed deal was dubbed a “debt-for-nature swap.” Friedman organized Pacific Lumber’s legal team and strategy, and flew to Washington, D.C., several times to negotiate with the federal government. Day-to-day, he relies on Jared Carter, the general counsel of Pacific Lumber and the man generally credited with talking Julia Butterfly Hill down from her treehouse. Maxxam’s lawyers scoff at the concept of a “debt-for-nature” swap — “there’s no debt, period,” says Pecht. Separately, Hurwitz agreed last year to sell 7,500 acres of the Headwaters Forest to the government for as much as $480 million. Friedman and Carter are trying to implement the landmark deal, which creates a preserve and a habitat conservation plan. “Implementing it has been more difficult than negotiating it,” says Friedman, who spends much of his time on conference calls with lawyers, politicians, and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to smooth out the kinks. According to Carter, the deal allows Pacific Lumber and its parent company to quell environmentalists’ criticism and get on with business. “We want to just cool it,” says Carter. “You can’t [run a timber company] while people sue you or lock themselves to your gate or climb up your trees.” But that doesn’t mean Friedman plans on keeping the company’s profile low. In fact, the master strategist is laying the groundwork to pump up Maxaam’s political clout. In February, Friedman pulled together a committee to reinstate Kaiser’s political action committee and create another one for Maxxam. Friedman intends to raise about $150,000�-$200,000 a year for Kaiser and $100,000 a year for Maxxam. Although he won’t say exactly how each company will spend its PAC money, he will say this: Unions give millions of dollars to politicians to lobby on issues important to them. So it only makes sense that they do the same. All we need, says Friedman, is a “game plan.”

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