THE MAN WHO beat McDonald's didn't want to meet at the McRestaurant down the street from his Ballard home. "That would make me very uncomfortable," said Seattle attorney Harish Bharti. "It would be like returning to the scene of the crime." He was much happier on his own overstuffed couch Sunday morning, despite the pummeling he took a day earlier on CNN's Crossfire. Once a judge in his native India, Bharti, 48, suddenly found himself the subject of trial by talk show. He'd been lured on air to explain last week's $12.5 million legal settlement he helped arrange with McDonald's. The hamburger empire conceded that the "natural ingredients" in its French fries and hash browns have long included beef extract, an anathema to those who don't eat meat such as strict vegetarians and Hindus. But once on-screen, Bharti was quickly cableized by the dueling talkers.
"Brother," said co-host Armstrong Williams, "this is about money. You, as a lawyer, are just looking for a big payday. . . . You go into McDonald's and buy about $3 worth of fries, and you're trying to get part of a $10 million lawsuit, which you're probably going to end up getting about 20 percent of!" Bharti tried to explain that he and other attorneys took the case on contingency, which could have left them with nothing. And don't forget, mighty McDonald's admitted it deceived its customers. His response was drowned out by the bantering hosts, sharing an order of McDonald's fries.
"Well," says Bharti, "people always think it is just money." He has framed some of his earlier press clips about his work as a criminal defense attorney and hung them on a front-room wall. The clips include mention of the time he spent $22,000 of his own funds on a child-custody case; once he sold his car to pay the costs of defending a battered woman accused of murder. On a nearby table is a picture of Bharti and Wyoming public-interest lawyer Gerry Spence, at whose Trial Lawyers College Bharti sometimes teaches, and where Ambulance Chasing 101 is not a required credit. "I take cases that others will not take. I take it because I like this person, and they are being treated unjustly."
He says he fought for his clients against even his fellow lawyers in the McDonald's case, which he filed here last May, making global headlines and igniting protests (in India, demonstrators threw cow dung on McDonald's windows). After the claim grew into a nationwide class-action suit, McDonald's relabeled its fries to include "contains beef." Last week McD's agreed to give $10 million to various charities and groups (representing a class of 1 million Hindus and 15 million vegetarians), pay $40,000 each to 12 named plaintiffs, set up a dietary advisory board, issue public apologies in the media, and pay a battery of attorneys more than $2 million.
"The other attorneys, they wished to hide the settlement from their own clients until the court gave its approval," says Bharti. He opposed that strategy with a weighty motion, approved by the court. "We were suing McDonald's for not disclosing information to its customers, and here some attorneys were saying we should do the same to our clients? In Texas, when the clients found this out, they fired their attorneys."
Bharti, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1983, shares an Oct. 2 birthday with one of his heroes, Mahatma Gandhi, the lawyer-turned-revered-nationalist-leader ("I may become a holy man, too," says a chuckling Bharti, who meditates daily, "but I have a few kinks to work out."). Married, with two young boys, he just received a note from the wife of a former Indian prime minister thanking him for forcing the mea culpa from McD's "satanic empire" (he was tipped to the additive practice by an acquaintance who knew him as both an attorney and a Hindu). Bharti focused his suit as a consumer-protection case, donning his cut-rate attorney general's hat, as he puts it. "The corporation pays the costs and fees and changes the way it operates. It costs the public nothing, and from this, it is my belief, we have changed the food industry forever." He smiles pleasantly. "We finally know where is the beef."