If chosen for HUD, Julian Castro's big payday could face scrutiny

That’s how Castro supports himself and his family now. But the seed money for Castro’s time in the mayor’s office — he was first elected in 2009 — was a controversial seven-figure “referral fee” that Castro, a Harvard-educated lawyer, received from a well-connected trial lawyer and Democratic donor in a personal injury lawsuit in which Castro may or may not have played a major role.

The case stemmed from a 2006 drunk driving accident in which three people were killed. The short version, according to accounts in the San Antonio Express-News, is that the drunk driver was behind the wheel of a truck owned by an oilfield services company. (The fact that a company’s vehicle was involved provided a big source of money for a potential damages award.) One of the victims, a man who lost his mother, wife, and son in the crash, knew Castro and chose Castro’s small firm to represent him in a suit against the oilfield services company. Castro then referred the case to a much larger firm, headed by Mikal Watts, a prominent personal injury lawyer and Democratic contributor. Watts won the case, and a big award, and Castro was paid a seven-figure “referral fee” for bringing the suit to Watts’ firm. It’s not clear whether the fee was on the high side or low side of the seven-figure range; the figure has not been disclosed. In response to questions about what Castro did to earn the money, both he and Watts have said he played an important role in the case. (Watts, meanwhile, has been busy with allegations of misconduct in lawsuits stemming from the British Petroleum oil spill. The New York Times reported that he was accused of “claiming thousands of people as clients who were either unwitting or did not, in fact, exist.” Federal agents served search warrants at his San Antonio offices last year.)