Railbird co-producer says ‘no connection’ between festival and his role in notorious legal case

Railbird Festival co-producer: ‘the plan is to do this annually’

Railbird Festival co-producer David Helmers speaks about his hopes for the festival which starts on Aug. 10.
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Railbird Festival co-producer David Helmers speaks about his hopes for the festival which starts on Aug. 10.

A co-producer of Lexington’s new music festival, Railbird, says there is “no connection” between the event and millions of dollars he earned in one of Kentucky’s most controversial legal cases, which also led to him being disbarred in 2011.

David Helmers, who planted the seed for and is co-producing the weekend music festival at Keeneland, was disbarred by the Kentucky Supreme Court in 2011 for his part in bilking more than $94 million from more than 440 clients involved in a 2001 settlement over the diet-drug fen-phen.

Helmers worked for William Gallion, one of three attorneys who represented the 440 clients who sued American Home Products, the maker of the diet drug fen-phen claiming the drug caused heart and other health problems. The lawyers in the case were supposed to receive 30 to 33 percent of the settlement, according to agreements with their clients. Instead, they took much more.

In the September 22, 2011, disbarment order, the court revoked Helmers’ law license citing “serious ethical violations.”

Helmers said he has not invested any money in Railbird and any claims that he used the fen-phen settlement money for those purposes are wrong.

“This event has no connection to the 2001 settlement. Railbird has not been financed by me — directly or indirectly,” Helmers said. “I have worked very hard to make this event happen because I think it is a great event for our community. I feel very fortunate to have the job of co-producing the event.”

The court found that Helmers wasn’t the mastermind of the scheme, but rather acted at the direction of Gallion and other experienced lawyers. Helmers started at Gallion’s firm as a law clerk during law school and shortly after passing the bar in 1997 began to work almost exclusively on the fen-phen lawsuit which was filed in 1998, according to the state Supreme Court order.

Chief Justice John Minton said in the 2011 order “it takes no technical expertise” to know that deceiving clients was wrong. The order found Helmers met with many of the clients and failed to disclose the details of the settlement or that the attorneys had decided beforehand how much each client would receive from the settlement.

Helmers was never convicted or charged in relation to the case. Gallion and Shirley Cunningham, another lawyer connected with the fen-phen case, are currently in federal prison after being convicted on federal charges related to bilking their clients out of millions. A third lawyer, Melbourne Mills of Lexington, was acquitted during a federal criminal trial but was later disbarred. Stanley Chesley, a famed Cincinnati attorney, was also disbarred for his actions in the case.

Helmers was allowed to keep the money he made from the settlement — including a $3 million bonus.

Angela Ford, a lawyer who represented the former fen-phen clients in a civil lawsuit against the atttorneys, said Helmers’ former clients aren’t happy with his new-found fame as a music festival producer. Ford said she has received several phone calls from those clients after a Sunday Herald-Leader story about Helmers, which did not mention his disbarment or involvement in the fen-phen settlement.

“The Supreme Court opinion sets forth the basis for his disbarment very clearly and as you can imagine the clients who were lied to in person by Helmers about the amount of their settlement are the ones most upset, “ Ford said.

Ford said clients have also expressed outrage that Helmers in 2011 took a trip around the world, which was also referenced in the Sunday Herald-Leader article.

Helmers said he had no further comment about the fen-phen settlement.

“Those events were exhaustively reported when they occurred years ago,” Helmers said.

Helmers partnered with AC Entertainment, founders and producers of Bonnaroo and producers of Forecastle, to bring Railbird to Lexington.

VisitLEX President Mary Quinn Ramer previously stated that AC Entertainment was recruited to avoid problems that plagued Lexington’s now-defunct Moontower Music Festival, such as day-of difficulties with ticketing and alcohol sales. The Moontower festival had a four-year run from 2014 to 2017.

In July, one of the partners in the now-defunct Moontower Music Festival, LexEffect, filed for bankruptcy, according to documents filed in federal court in Lexington. Those documents show LexEffect owes money to musical acts that performed at the 2017 Moontower Music Festival. Umphrey McGee, one of the headliners, won a judgment of $73,285.89 against LexEffect for nonpayment in a Los Angeles court case. In addition, the list of creditors includes Paradigm Agency, which represents Cherub La Musica, another band that played at Moontower in 2017. The amount owed to Paradigm and Cherub La Musica is not listed in court documents.

Helmers, who became a co-owner in Moontower, is also listed as a creditor, according to bankruptcy documents. It’s not clear how much Helmers is owed. Helmers did not answer questions about the LexEffect bankruptcy.