Weitz & Luxenberg already has one heavyweight in Albany. Now it appears the firm would like a second.
Weitz & Luxenberg, which is based in Manhattan, is one of the nation’s largest personal injury law firms. It counts Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as among its members, a source of suspicion for critics of Mr. Silver, who has been a loyal ally of trial lawyers.
Now the firm is pouring money into the campaign of Kathleen M. Rice, the Nassau County district attorney, who is seen as the leading Democratic contender to succeed Andrew M. Cuomo as attorney general.
Five of Weitz’s lawyers, including its two founding partners, contributed $236,698 to the Rice campaign in the last year. In the most recent filing period, Weitz lawyers accounted for nearly 12 percent of the more than $1.4 million in contributions Ms. Rice reported.
And top lawyers at three firms that frequently work with Weitz — two of which are based in other states — also donated heavily. Factoring in these donations, the Weitz-connected contributions made up roughly 20 percent of the Rice campaign’s donations in the most recent filing period, which covers December and the first half of January.
Last spring, Ms. Rice hired Justin Weitz, the son of Perry Weitz, the top partner at Weitz & Luxenberg, to work as an assistant district attorney. Noting Justin Weitz’s qualifications, Eric Phillips, a spokesman for Ms. Rice, said, “The office didn’t believe he should be barred from such public service just because a member of his family is involved in politics.”
The Rice campaign dismissed any suggestions that the contributions were unusual, emphasizing that several of the law firm’s donors, including Mr. Weitz and Arthur Luxenberg, the managing partner, were Long Island residents who had long known Ms. Rice.
Her campaign also noted that the two men have a long history as Democratic donors, though state and federal records show they have never provided a similar share of another candidate’s fund-raising.
“Their financial support over the years has been the logical byproduct of their awareness of her strong record,” Mr. Phillips said. “Candidates often rely on financial support from those who are most familiar with the work they have done.”
“The campaign has not engaged — and will not engage — in policy discussions with the firm,” Mr. Phillips added.
Mr. Luxenberg, in an interview, also stressed the geographical connections. “She’s a Nassau County D.A. I live in Nassau County,” he said. “Perry Weitz was originally in Nassau County. We’ve given money to her going back many, many years. It’s not a recent occurrence.”
“I don’t hope to get anything out of it,” he added.
Cozying up to the attorney general makes sense in the calculus of New York politics because the position has been a steppingstone for governors, who can back all manner of legislation beneficial to trial lawyers. But good relations with the attorney general’s office can also be useful for litigation lawyers, who can use the information gathered by prosecutors to press their own lawsuits.
Separate suits by the New York attorney general against two pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline and Merck, over drugs they manufactured have aided the work of litigation lawyers pursuing cases against the firms.
Law firms are also sometimes hired by attorneys general, particularly those with smaller budgets, to help on cases, although this is less common in New York. Weitz & Luxenberg says it has never done any work for the state attorney general.
“New York has long taken a policy for a while, going back, not to give out these litigations,” Mr. Luxenberg said. “It’s a huge benefit for other states. I’m not suggesting in the past we haven’t encouraged attorney generals to use law firms to help them.”
Mr. Phillips said Ms. Rice “has no plans” to use Weitz should she be elected, “nor have they asked for such work.”
Jon Pierce, a spokesman for New Yorkers for Lawsuit Reform, an advocacy group supported by business leaders and doctors’ groups, criticized Weitz & Luxenberg’s donations to the Rice campaign. “This is another example of the trial lawyers in New York State trying to increase their already significant influence in Albany,” Mr. Pierce said.
Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government watchdog, said the contributions underscored the weaknesses of New York’s campaign finance laws, which put high limits on individual contributions. Perry Weitz alone donated more than $91,000 in the last year to the Rice campaign.
“Regardless of what Weitz is up to, it shows another gaping loophole in the already Swiss-cheese-like campaign contribution limits,” Mr. Horner said.
Three firms that frequently work with Weitz also contributed to Ms. Rice. Simmons Browder Gianaris Angelides & Barnerd, a firm based in East Alton, Ill., donated $46,599 last December, and its lead partner, John Simmons, donated $3,400. Kenneth Bailey of Bailey Perrin Bailey, a Texas firm, donated $46,000, while Christopher Seeger of Seeger Weiss, which is based in New York, donated $30,000.
The Simmons firm had no comment. The two other firms did not return calls for comment.
Weitz & Luxenberg has been a controversial player in Albany since the firm hired Mr. Silver in 2002, in part because exactly what Mr. Silver does for the firm is a mystery. New York disclosure laws do not require Mr. Silver to reveal his clients or say how much he is paid. He has said he represents individuals in personal injury cases, but his name has not appeared in any court records for years.
Mr. Silver’s support of trial lawyers — he has repeatedly blocked efforts to change the tort system — and his status as one of the most powerful politicians in the state have benefited the law firm that employs him. In 2008 Mr. Silver appointed Mr. Luxenberg to a screening committee that recommends judicial nominees to the governor.
Still, while Mr. Silver’s firm may be backing Ms. Rice, Mr. Silver is supporting a rival candidate for attorney general, Richard L. Brodsky, an Assembly colleague and a Democrat who represents Westchester County.
When asked why his firm wanted to see Ms. Rice elected, Mr. Silver reiterated that Mr. Weitz and Ms. Rice know each other and that Mr. Weitz’s son works in her office. “They don’t do what I tell them to do, politically,” Mr. Silver said.
By DANNY HAKIM