Attack of the Killer Gadflies (Part I)

You don't take Rick Finlan and Don Venable seriously? That could be a mistake you live to regret.

Like Ross Perot, Finlan's rights seem easily trifled with. He loves a good fight--the bigger the dog, the better. Salty and tough, his off-color speech is peppered with the sound bites and one-liners of a man accustomed to operating inside the political system.

And he has tried to assume that role. In 1987, at age 40, Finlan ran for city council, challenging incumbent Craig Holcomb for his East Dallas seat. Finlan says he ran because he was interested in property tax reform. Others say he ran because he dislikes Holcomb--whom he described to reporters as "an avant-garde single man. He goes to these new-wave clubs and counts himself as part of the East Dallas chic."

"Rick could really punch my buttons," recalls Holcomb. "The best thing I did was ignore what he said." Finlan kept Holcomb on the defensive, preaching his fiscal conservatism, promising to clean up "dirty deals" at City Hall. In the end, Finlan managed just 20 percent of the vote. "I didn't think he had any credibility," says Holcomb. "To a large extent, he was the classic definition of a gadfly."

Finlan returned to his watchdog ways. His new approach for shrinking the size of government was to make its officials feel small. In 1989, he filed a lawsuit to disqualify council members Lipscomb and Diane Ragsdale from holding office, alleging that their re-election would violate the three-consecutive-term limit in the city charter. Lipscomb and Ragsdale had both won election to unexpired terms before winning two full two-year terms.

Finlan represented himself in court, his first foray into pro se legal practice. He says it was only partly to save money. "It's like cutting your own grass," he says. "When you do it yourself, you do a better job."

The self-made man began remaking himself into an ersatz lawyer. He spent countless hours at the SMU law library, filed his own pleadings, argued his own case. Judge Merrill Hartman threw him out of court on a technicality, ruling that only the DA was authorized to bring such a case to court.

Undaunted, in June 1989, he filed a criminal complaint against Dallas Mayor Annette Strauss, charging her with accepting an illegal travel gift from American Airlines, then siding with the airline by supporting the Wright Amendment. The DA declined to prosecute.

Undaunted, Finlan next organized the opposition to 14-1, the city council redistricting plan to boost minority representation on the council through the establishment of single-member districts. He enlisted the help of top Republican conservatives, who made the issue their own. "By the time it was over, we got no credit for our contribution," says Finlan. In December 1990, 14-1 was soundly defeated at the polls. U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer imposed it anyway, making Finlan's efforts all for naught.

Still undaunted, Finlan announced his second candidacy for the city council. This time he ran against Lori Palmer. Finlan told Oak Lawn voters, "I am what Ronald Reagan would be if he had a heart and a brain."

He lost in a landslide.

It seems fitting that the machinations of the Dallas school board brought Rick Finlan and Don Venable together. Both were taxpayers, had children attending Dallas public schools, and felt the DISD was out of control. The second-largest school district in Texas would become their common obsession.

In August 1991, Superintendent Marvin Edwards announced he was laying off more than 250 teachers because of budget cutbacks. Edwards was clearly engaged in a gambit, figuring that the board would raise taxes rather than allow him to fire dozens of teachers.

But he couldn't have anticipated the public outcry his move would set off. Parents organized. Students took to the streets. Massive rallies were staged in a show of solidarity with teachers.

But the board refused to back down. In a corner, Edwards did some fancy book work and found the money for his teachers after all. He announced that 68 teachers would be rehired with $2.3 million found in the operating fund. The money had been originally earmarked for two construction projects. But those also could be financed from leftover 1985 bond funds. So Edwards used the bond money for the construction projects, and the construction money for teacher salaries. The crisis had been averted. Everyone seemed happy.

Everyone but Don Venable.
Venable announced to the press that if the district carried out its scheme to siphon money from the bond funds, he would sue. For him, it wasn't a question of teacher salaries. It was a question of fraud, misrepresentation, and breach of the public trust.

When Rick Finlan read in the paper that Don Venable was at it again, he insisted they meet. He went over to Venable's house one evening--told him he wanted to join his lawsuit. These were all his issues: misuse of bond funds, abuse of office, government accountability--they talked the same talk. Finlan suggested they represent themselves. He had done it before. Lawyers weren't worth a damn anyway. Venable felt reluctant; he wanted to do this by himself. But Finlan wouldn't be denied. If Venable wouldn't let him join, he would intervene in his lawsuit anyway. Why not save the filing fees?

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