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Hurricane tort king wires another $1 million to pro-Obama Super PAC


Steve Mostyn, 41, a Houston-based personal injury attorney, said he was inspired by President Barack Obama's performance in the Oct. 16 debate to donate another $1 million to a Democratic Super PAC run by former White House aides.

A wealthy Texas trial lawyer -- known as the king of hurricane torts -- wired $1 million to the main Super PAC backing President Barack Obama late last week, solidifying his standing as one of the chief bankrollers of Democratic causes in this year’s election.

With his latest seven figure donation, Houston personal injury lawyer Steve Mostyn -- an ardent foe of tort reform -- has now contributed $3 million to Priorities USA Action, a Super PAC run by two former White House aides. His latest contribution -- in addition to another $500,000  given by his wife to an allied group -- underscores the heavy reliance of Democratic Super PACs on a small number of mega donors. (Super PACs are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and individuals.)  

Mostyn told NBC News that he agreed to wire the additional $1 million last week after watching the second debate at Hofstra University on Long Island and getting energized by the president’s more forceful performance than during the first debate.

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“I needed to see some fight,” he said of the president’s performance. He also said he expects the Super PAC to use his cash to help fund more attack ads hammering Republican rival Mitt Romney over his Bain Capital past, portraying him as a heartless executive who destroys jobs rather than creates them. Although Priorities USA Action ads (and Obama campaign ads) hit that theme hard over the summer, now is when “you’re speaking to low-information voters,” Mostyn said.

New campaign finance reports filed over the weekend show the Obama Super PAC is in relatively good shape to send the message. The group reported that it collected $15.2 million in September – outraising Restore Our Future, the main pro-Romney Super PAC, for the second month in a row. (This figure predates Mostyn’s latest cash infusion.)

While GOP Super PACs have still outraised and so far outspent their Democratic counterparts, the combined total of $31.4 million raised by Priorities USA and its two allies (Majority PAC and House Majority PAC) shows they are now fully armed to compete against an expected pro-GOP ad blitz in the last two weeks.

But while the Obama campaign has touted its reliance on small donors, the most striking feature of the latest Democratic Super PAC numbers is the outsized role played by just a handful of super-rich mega donors in funding the group.

Of the $52 million that Priorities USA Action has raised for the entire election cycle, $19 million (or nearly 40) percent came from just six individuals. Besides Mostyn, these include: Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of Dreamworks Animation, who has given $3 million;  Fred Eychaner, a Chicago based media mogul whose print empire includes the Chicago Reader, who has given $3.5 million;  James  Simons, the hedge fund billionaire founder of Renaissance Technologies, who has given $3.5 million;  Irwin Jacobs, a San Diego billionaire and the founder and former CEO of Qualcomm ($2 million); and  Jon Stryker, a philanthropist and gay rights activist ($2 million.) Other big donations to Priorities USA Action last month included $1 million from director Steven Spielberg, $1 million from famed trial lawyer David Boies (who argued for Al Gore in the 2000 Florida recount case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court) and $300,000 from Sam Walton, the chairman of Walmart.   

The mega donor phenomenon is hardly unique to the Democrats, of course. These donations still pale next to the $40 million that Las Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson has funneled this cycle into GOP Super PACs, including $10 million to the pro-Romney Restore Our Future. And the Romney Super PAC reported that Bob Perry, the publicity shy Texas homebuilder best known for helping fund the Swift Boat ads against John Kerry in 2004, gave another $2 million last month, bringing his total donations to $9 million. That means that Perry and Adelson alone have accounted for nearly 20 percent of the Restore Our Future’s total $111 million haul. 

Twinned with Perry’s cash, the Mostyn donations to Priorities USA Action gives the presidential contest the flavor of a Texas grudge match. The two men have been among the major funders of the years-long fight in Texas over tort reform. Perry (whose home-building company has been hit with massive multimillion-dollar lawsuits brought by trial lawyers) has helped bankroll Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a pro-business group that has fought to rein in lawsuits.  Mostyn, who has specialized in mass class-action lawsuits brought by hurricane victims, has been a major financier of the opposition.

A past president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, Mostyn has also been a somewhat controversial figure in state legal circles. He’s known as “Hurricane Mostyn” due to the class-action lawsuit he brought against the Texas Wind Insurance Association (TWIA) on behalf of the victims of  Hurricane Ike, which devastated the Texas coast in 2008. The lawsuit, alleging the mishandling of insurance claims, led to a $189 million settlement -- $86 million of which reportedly went in fees to his law firm. That, in turn, triggered an increase in premium payments by the TWIA and calls by Republicans in the state Legislature to curb what were called the association’s “out-of-control legal expenses.”

Like most big donors, Mostyn tells NBC News that his main concern is good government, not any special benefits he might receive from the White House (such as his private meeting with the president last spring at the W Hotel after he gave his first $2 million to Priorities USA Action.) He said he shares the general liberal distaste for Super PACs, but given the vast amounts flowing into the GOP Super PACs, he was persuaded to contribute to Priorities USA Action by Paul Begala and Bill Burton during a meeting aboard his yacht last spring: “You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight,” he said.

Michael Isikoff is a national investigative correspondent for NBC News.

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