Attorney Tony Buzbee says his firm will represent 12 women in the civil cases against Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, accusing him of sexual assault. Buzbee said they have filed seven lawsuits and the rest will be coming. Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP

HOUSTON — The phone call Tony Buzbee had been expecting came one night in mid-March, he said, as he was driving to dinner.

Buzbee is the wealthy, flamboyant civil attorney who just days prior had announced via Instagram the first in a wave of lawsuits accusing Deshaun Watson, the Houston Texans’ star quarterback, of harassing and assaulting women during massages. He answered the phone to hear the gravelly twang of the lawyer famous sports figures in this city turn to when they are accused of wrongdoing: Rusty Hardin.

The men exchanged pleasantries, Buzbee recalled, and then Buzbee made an offer.

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Deshaun Watson. Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

“Your guy’s got some kind of weird problem … alleged problem,” Buzbee said he told Hardin. “This is already spiraling in a bad direction. … Why don’t we try to resolve this now?”

Buzbee had filed three lawsuits against Watson by then, and he told Hardin he had another four ready to go, he said. Buzbee had tried to settle weeks prior, he told Hardin, but had been rebuffed by the quarterback’s management at the firm Athletes First, whom Buzbee characterized to Hardin, he said, as “arrogant, dismissive jackasses.”

According to Buzbee, Hardin asked to have until 5 p.m. the next day to confer with Watson and his management. At 7 p.m. the following day, Buzbee said, he got a text from Hardin informing him there would be no settlement.

“And away we go,” Buzbee said during an hour-long interview Wednesday, in which he offered the most detailed account to date of the legal battle behind the scandal that has engulfed the career of one of the NFL’s most promising young stars.

Hardin, in a brief phone interview Wednesday, disputed the veracity of some of Buzbee’s remarks but declined to get into specifics, citing a wave of legal filings he plans to make next week.

“There are many inaccuracies in what Tony has said, but I would rather address them in court filings than in an article,” Hardin said.

The legal wrangling intensified this week, with Buzbee refiling most of 21 lawsuits, initially made anonymously, with the names of the accusers. The women all provide similar accounts, alleging the star quarterback contacted them via Instagram over the past year to arrange massages in which he then attempted to get them to gratify him sexually. The accusations against Watson range from exposing himself and forcing his penis against women’s hands while making suggestive remarks to masturbating and, in two cases, forcing women to perform oral sex on him.

Three more of Buzbee’s clients have recently spoken to Houston police, Buzbee said Wednesday, bringing the publicly known total of accusers involved with the law enforcement investigation of Watson to five. A spokesman for Houston police declined to comment.

Watson and his legal team have denied any allegations of wrongdoing with women. Hardin has acknowledged the quarterback arranged massages over the past year via Instagram, which the attorney partially blamed on the coronavirus pandemic shutting down Houston’s spa industry. But he said any sex acts that may have occurred during massages were consensual.

Ashley Solis, the first woman to come forward, contacted Buzbee’s firm in late January, he said. While Buzbee rose to legal fame and wealth primarily through large cases against oil companies, his firm routinely handles civil sexual assault cases against universities, corporations and prominent local figures, he said.

“Most people know that if I’m involved, they probably want to resolve the case,” Buzbee said. But he said that in his initial conversations with Scott Gaffield, general counsel for Athletes First, it quickly became clear that Watson’s management didn’t take the case seriously.

“I said: ‘Let me tell you how this is going to go down: I’m going to file the case. The press is going to pick it up. It’s going to be a circus. … He’s going to have to hire Rusty Hardin.’ And here we are,” Buzbee said. “This guy was so clueless about how things work.”

Presented with Buzbee’s version of events, Gaffield declined to comment Wednesday, referring a reporter to an earlier statement in which he said: “We did not think that the facts showed that Deshaun did anything wrong with their client. … We expect that this matter will be resolved in court.”

Buzbee said he initially suggested the sides enter in private, confidential mediation. Gaffield rejected that, Buzbee said, and asked for a demand letter outlining what Solis wanted. Buzbee offered to settle the case for $100,000, he said, which Gaffield also rejected.

“We don’t believe that the alleged facts show that Deshaun did anything wrong … but we are nevertheless happy to continue the conversation around a reasonable settlement figure because we believe he can learn a lesson about having put himself in this situation,” Gaffield wrote Feb. 19 in an email Watson’s legal team publicly released this month.

“He wanted us to bid against ourselves,” Buzbee said. “And I was done.”

Buzbee expected more accusers would come forward, he said, but even he was surprised at the flood of calls. He has five attorneys working on the cases, he said, and every client has been vetted for some proof they dealt with Watson, most of them with messages exchanged with the quarterback via Instagram.

Buzbee declined to provide any of his clients for interviews, however, and asked The Washington Post not to contact them. He praised Solis as “a warrior” for ignoring his advice to drop the case, out of concern for the duress inherent in a high-profile lawsuit involving accusations of sexual wrongdoing against someone wealthy and famous. He said Solis endured harassing comments on social media, including a few death threats, after she spoke at a news conference April 6.

Watson, as Buzbee expected, hired Hardin, the criminal defense attorney whose long list of high-profile cases includes those involving former Houston Astros pitcher Roger Clemens, former Houston Rockets Calvin Murphy and Steve Francis, and the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. In his first extensive public remarks about the case last week, Hardin criticized Buzbee and his clients for engaging in a “new kind of extortion using social media and salacious innuendo.”

Buzbee laughed and mocked this defense and other remarks Hardin made last week.

“Rusty and I get along smashingly. … He’s a fighter, he’s smart, and he’s good on his feet. … But I think he’s been dealt a bad hand here,” Buzbee said.

To Hardin’s explanation that Watson turned to Instagram to arrange massages because of the pandemic?

“Because of COVID, he was reaching out to dozens of different people on Instagram? For massages? … Because of COVID, you would think he would have one person who had tested negative,” Buzbee said.

To Hardin’s argument that any sex acts that occurred in these massages with Watson were consensual?

“So you’ve just told the world who’s watching that your client paid for sex? … My grandma always said: ‘You’re digging yourself a hole already. Stop digging,'” Buzbee said.

Minutes later, Buzbee walked out of his office on the 73rd floor of the tallest building in Texas, past walls decorated with press clippings celebrating his legal career and conference rooms with door handles shaped like sharks. He joked, toward the end of the interview, that he would be willing to bet $100,000 that Watson’s managers wished they had settled with him back in February.

“This has gone pretty much the way I thought it would so far, but we’ll see where it goes from here,” he said. “I’m encouraged and optimistic.”

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