By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Don Venable gulps down a cup of coffee, looking a bit bleary-eyed before court this August morning.
Venable had stayed up late the night before with Rick Finlan, his partner in gadfly-ism. They were hoping to divine a trial strategy to convince a judge to take the unusual step of punishing lawyers--in this case, several attorneys for the Dallas school district.
Finlan, age 48, will lead the charge in court today--another skirmish in the pair's war of attrition with the Dallas Independent School District. Finlan's morning handshake is noticeably damp. Yet his unnerving ice-blue eyes and white beard give him a frosty, unflappable veneer. Finlan's weathered complexion offers evidence of his past life as a home builder--a life that he has left far behind over the last four years. He and Venable, a former seminary student, are now pursuing a holier calling: that of government watchdogs.
The pair will proceed today, as usual, as pro se plaintiffs--without benefit of lawyer, legal training, or law degree. This sort of business has become an obsession withthem: filing lawsuits against local government; investigating the city council, the police department, the school district; targeting John Wiley Price, Al Lipscomb, Annette Strauss, Kathlyn Gilliam. Venable and Finlan sue--whenever they decide government officials are unaccountable, out of control, or simply arrogant.
Outside the 162nd District Court in the Dallas County Government Center, Finlan and Venable greet lawyer Larry Friedman and two of his associates, who now represent DISD. They engage in the kind of pre-trial schmoozing customary among lawyers about to do battle. At a cool distance stands Dennis Eichelbaum, DISD's short, pugnacious general counsel--and longtime arch-nemesis to Finlan and Venable. Eichelbaum happily withdrew only weeks earlier as DISD's lead attorney in the matter.
Eichelbaum's joy at disengagement is understandable.
For four years this war has raged. Finlan and Venable started it by suing the school district, claiming it had illegally diverted millions in bond funds to pay teachers' salaries. An assortment of scurrilous charges, counter-charges, additional lawsuits, and counter-suits have followed.
DISD officials have branded Finlan and Venable's litigation frivolous, their tactics harassment, their motive greed. Finlan and Venable, in turn, have accused the district of engaging in a dark, illicit conspiracy. In today's hearing, they are seeking to punish the district's lawyers for their misdeeds--and to discover more details of the plot against them.
How seriously does the district take these two "average citizens"? It slapped them with a $283 million retaliatory lawsuit.
As the hearing proceeds, things sour quickly for Finlan. Although Judge Bill Rhea is new to the case, he seems to be growing impatient. He encourages Finlan to move along. Eichelbaum, sitting in the gallery, laughs under his breath.
Finlan quickly changes his tactics.
He has subpoenaed the tape of a recent executive session of the school board. During this "secret meeting," he says, the trustees turned down a settlement offer from Finlan and Venable and voted instead to hire outside counsel--Friedman and Associates--to press forward with the litigation. Finlan believes the tape will show yet another act in the district's conspiracy. He asks for the tape.
Two DISD lawyers jump to their feet to object. Eichelbaum objects under his breath. The tape is a recording of an executive session--the kind of closed meeting which the Texas Open Meetings Act permits, Friedman argues. Since the tape is protected from public disclosure, he says, noone--not the plaintiffs, not the press, not even the judge--has the right to hear it.
Suddenly the baby-faced Venable perks up, his pink complexion reddening at the prospect of a fight. "Your Honor," he declares, "this [meeting] was part of a continuous plot to do us harm and commit the crime of official oppression!"
Eichelbaum slides forward to the counsel's table, drawn almost hypnotically into the fray. Nothing can quiet him now. Citing an attorney general's opinion, he declares: "That tape may not be released!"
Judge Rhea appears nonplussed. "I can't make a determination about the tape absent an in camera inspection."
Friedman, wanting the judge to get "the whole picture," tells him that only days before, Finlan and Venable had illegally gained possession of another executive-session tape and released it to the media. The tape, which DISD lawyers thought had been sealed, revealed embarrassingly blunt discussions between the school trustees and Eichelbaum--one DISD board member is heard saying "any way we can screw them is the best thing in the world"--during a September 1992 executive session. "I want them to explain how they got that tape," demands Friedman.
They had done nothing wrong, responds Finlan. Another judge had ordered "that anyone who wanted to could listen to that tape."
"That is a contemptible lie!" shouts Eichelbaum in open court. "He (Finlan) violated the law. We are going to [District Attorney] John Vance about that!"
The judge had heard enough. He would listen to this new tape in private.
As the parties leave the courtroom, Finlan feels he's won a small victory. "This whole hearing was about educating a new judge to our side of the case," he explains in a voice coarsened by too many cigarettes. "Once he hears the tape, he'll get a feel for the trustees plotting against a couple of citizens who spoke out against them."