Farm boy turned top litigator Dave Domina makes low-key case to voters that he’s not ‘more of the same’

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Attorney and U.S. Senate candidate Dave Domina is the conquering courtroom warrior, having notched one legal victory after another during his long career.

This story is the latest in a Sunday series of Election 2014 candidate profiles.

The name alone can churn the guts of an opposing attorney.

Dave Domina, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, has amassed a 39-year record of trial victories studded with million-dollar awards and nearly crowned by a class-action verdict of $1.2 billion that was overturned on appeal.

Domina is the only living litigator with a role in the impeachments of two Nebraska elected officials. And his legal assault on the Keystone XL oil pipeline halted a federal review of the project and has pipeline observers anxiously awaiting the case’s outcome.

In Norfolk, the northeast Nebraska city where Domina got his start in the mid-1970s, the legal community has even coined a term for what happens to lawyers unprepared to take him on.

“You’ve been ‘Dominized,’ ” said Norfolk attorney Tom DeLay, also an accomplished lawyer and one of Domina’s contemporaries.

Now Domina is laying out a case for why he should be the next U.S. senator from Nebraska. He argues that the same qualities that built his legal reputation — intelligence, integrity, a high capacity for work, strong negotiating skills and a passion for helping the underdog — would make him an effective senator.

Running against gridlock, partisanship and big-money politics, the 63-year-old Omaha attorney said he would strive to help the middle class and produce workable solutions to the nation’s problems. The country needs more statesmen, not partisans, he argued.

“People yearn for leadership,” he said.

But Domina also is running an unconventional and underfunded campaign that makes some wonder whether he regards the ballot box less seriously than the jury box.

“Almost everybody who has ever seen him says he is amazing in the courtroom … but he’s not a very good candidate,” said David Kramer, an Omaha attorney who serves as Nebraska’s Republican national committeeman.

In a recent interview, Domina admitted that he does not enjoy campaigning. While holding office and crafting legislation strongly appeals to him, he said, being a candidate “is not as intellectually challenging as a lot of the other work I do.”

But he’s doing it, and his message of making Congress work again is appealing to some voters, including DeLay, the Norfolk attorney who has won cases against Domina.

“I think he would make a great, great senator,” said DeLay, a Republican. “I’m tired of the mush-mouth, do-nothing, won’t-negotiate type of senator we’ve been sending to Washington.”

Domina grew up a long way from Washington, on a farm near Coleridge in northeast Nebraska. He is the oldest child in a family with three boys and two girls. When not in school, he drove a tractor, milked cows, fed hogs or played sports with his brothers. He grew to stand 6-foot-4 and as lean as a fence post.

Even at a young age, he was eager to learn, said his brother, Larry Domina, who now runs the family farm. Hard-working, ambitious and driven were more adjectives he used to describe a brother three years his elder. And genuinely respectful of other views.

“Do I agree with every single thing he says? No,” Larry Domina said. “By the time I’m done talking with him, he understands where I’m coming from and I understand where he’s coming from.”

Domina graduated with distinction from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 1972. He enlisted in the Army and was commissioned as a Judge Advocate General officer, assigned to provide legal services to military members. He completed his six years of service in the Nebraska Army National Guard and Reserve.

Shortly after he began his law practice in 1974 in Norfolk, Domina landed his first big case. He represented Iowa cattle producers who had been defrauded in an Iowa bank failure. Domina won a jury verdict of $1 million, an amount equal to $4.4 million today. He wasn’t yet 25.

He decided early on that, rather than specialize in one area of law, he wanted to hone his skill as a trial lawyer who could handle both civil matters and criminal defense. He took on complicated tax cases, represented farmers in regulatory disputes with the federal government and helped injured motorists in fights with insurance companies. He also successfully defended clients accused of felony crimes, including first-degree murder.

In 1982, he started his own practice in Norfolk and, seven years later, opened another office in Omaha. The firm now operates just from Omaha, where it employs four associate attorneys. His website says the firm has won awards in excess of $1 million in 11 different states and has obtained more than $2 billion in settlements and judgments since 1975.

Domina’s résumé says he has tried 325 cases before juries and has argued more than 200 times before the Nebraska Supreme Court and federal appellate courts.

But he may be most widely known for two cases in which he served as a special prosecutor.

The first came in 1983 when Attorney General Paul Douglas appointed him to investigate the failure of Commonwealth Savings Co. His investigation uncovered that Douglas had been involved in possible insider borrowing and may have lied under oath. His report prompted the Nebraska Legislature to impeach the attorney general, marking just the second impeachment case in the state’s history.

Although four of the seven Nebraska Supreme Court judges found Douglas guilty on one of six impeachment articles, the law required a super-majority of five judges to remove the attorney general from office.

Domina’s second impeachment case took place in 2006 against David Hergert, a regent for the University of Nebraska. Serving as prosecutor, Domina proved that Hergert had intentionally filed false campaign finance reports following his 2004 election and then tried to cover up the violations. This time, the court removed Hergert.

After the Commonwealth case raised Domina’s public profile, he decided to run for governor in 1986. Seeking the Democratic nomination, he finished with 26 percent of the vote — a distant second to former Lincoln Mayor Helen Boosalis.

Looking back, Domina said he was too young and not ready to withstand the pressures to shift his positions to appease certain groups.

“I wasn’t mature enough then to really understand those pressures,” he said. “I think I do now, and I find them very easy to resist.”

He returned to legal work, which has been financially rewarding.

In disclosure forms filed with the U.S. Senate, Domina reported that his net worth ranges between $22 million and $85 million. The forms allow candidates to list assets in broad dollar ranges.

He reported earned income from his law firm at $1.25 million. He also co-owns Farmers State Bank of Carroll, Nebraska, and a real estate investment company in Omaha.

Other major assets are General Electric stock worth up to $5 million and farms in Nebraska and North Dakota valued at “more than $1 million” each. He formerly owned a grocery store and bookstore and, at one time, he estimated that he employed about 80 people.

Clearly, he doesn’t need to ever set foot in a courtroom again, but Domina said he still loves practicing the law. He seeks out complicated cases, especially those with constitutional ramifications. And he frequently represents people confronted by powerful adversaries, such as the government, major corporations, hospitals or insurance companies.

In 1996, Alabama cattle producer Henry Lee Pickett sued IBP, alleging that the packer used anti-competitive marketing practices to hold down cattle prices.

Domina joined the class-action lawsuit as lead co-counsel for the nation’s cattlemen, including those from Nebraska. Tyson Fresh Meats became the defendant after it purchased IBP.

Gordon-area rancher and plaintiff Chris Abbott was present for the month long trial in 2004. Evidence documents filled three-ring binders that lined 90 feet of bookshelf space, but Domina made the case understandable.

“I saw upwards of 20 Tyson attorneys come into the courtroom during the course of the month, all of them against Mr. Domina,” he said. “That was reason enough for me to admire him.”

The jury unanimously found in favor of the cattlemen and ordered Tyson to pay damages of $1.2 billion. But two months later, U.S. District Judge Lyle Strom set aside the verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declined to review it.

It wasn’t the only time Domina did not collect for work he had done. Debbie Chinnow of Plattsmouth said Domina represented her 18-year-old daughter, who was run over by a Lincoln police cruiser in 2006 and suffered a severe brain injury. The accident left the daughter, Jena Van Groningen, bed-ridden and in need of constant care for the rest of her life.

At the time, state law capped liability awards against public safety agencies at $1 million. But Domina had an idea to ensure that Van Groningen would receive the care she needed. He told the other lawyers in the case that he would start a trust fund for the young woman with his $325,000 legal fee. And he asked the insurance companies that had paid her initial medical bills to delay seeking reimbursement from the settlement to increase the size of the fund.

All attorneys agreed. Chinnow said she’ll never forget what one of the insurance lawyers told her.

“He said, ‘I’ve been an attorney for 17 years, and I’ve never heard of any attorney doing what he did for you,’ ” she said.

Eight years later, the fund continues to pay for Van Groningen’s care. If money remains in the fund at the time of her death, the insurance companies will be repaid then.

More recently, Domina has been at the center of the Keystone XL pipeline debate. He got into the case after a farmer whose land was on the pipeline route showed him an easement document that the company wanted him to sign. Domina was outraged at the proposed terms.

Anyone who supports the pipeline, he said, without reading the easement that would be “crammed down the throats of Nebraska farmers and ranchers, shame on that person. The homework has not been done.”

He has provided legal work to pipeline opponents, including an affiliation of landowners who have refused to accept easement terms. He also represents three landowners who convinced a district court judge to declare unconstitutional the state law used to route the pipeline. The state’s appeal of the decision is pending before the Nebraska Supreme Court.

When it comes to his race for the Senate, questions linger about why Domina has rejected the conventional approach of raising adequate money, hiring a proven campaign team and spending heavily on television advertising.

He has collected $840,000, compared with Republican Ben Sasse’s nearly $6 million. While Domina has employed social media and made appearances in all 93 counties, he has mapped his own campaign with the help of his wife, Carol Domina, his stepson and legal associate, Brian Jorde, and several paid staffers.

To win in a Republican state like Nebraska, a Democrat doesn’t have to outspend his opponent, but he should at least try to match it, said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and who has been involved in numerous Democratic campaigns.

Domina disagreed with suggestions that he hasn’t done enough to win. He said he can’t rail against big money and political insiders while accepting contributions from special interests and spending them on Washington consultants.

“I don’t think it’s over at all,” he said. “I think there is a real chance Nebraskans aren’t going to send somebody there who is more of the same, and I think there’s a pretty clear perception (Sasse is) more of the same.”

If elected, Domina said he would advocate for the tolerance of and respect for the individual. That means he supports gay marriage, legal abortion and legislative efforts to mandate equal pay for women. He also has said he is open to legalizing marijuana to redirect law enforcement resources currently devoted to fighting pot.

Domina said he respects President Barack Obama, and he agreed that there was a need to address health care affordability. While he does not like every aspect of the president’s Affordable Care Act, he said he would work to fix the law rather than repeal it.

He called himself a moderate who would try to help the middle class by closing corporate tax loopholes, breaking up the largest banks, simplifying the tax code and raising the minimum wage. And he said he would defend Social Security, meaning he opposes proposals to privatize the program, reduce cost-of-living adjustments or raise the eligibility age.

Some think trial attorneys, who go to combat for their clients, can’t play nice with others. But Domina says successful attorneys must be skilled negotiators in a system that compels compromise on most issues. It’s why so many cases result in settlement.

“I want people to think of me as a deep thinker,” he said. “I want to communicate to them that I have an always open mind. I spent my life in the system of proof of facts that always admits the possibility that the most important fact will come out with the last question asked.”

Over the next week or so, Domina will deliver the closing argument on his Senate campaign.

And on Nov. 4, voters will return their verdict.