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.

On September 17, 1991, Finlan and Venable, as taxpayers and parents, sued DISD to bar what they alleged was the fraudulent transfer of bond funds. Three months later, they were in court asking Judge Gary Hall to bar the transfer.

Although they lost the first round, the five-hour hearing gave them a taste for the rough and tumble of litigation.

Finlan loved the thrill of combat, the strategy of the game--actually thought it was "fun." Where else would he get the chance to beat up the big guy for so little money? He was quick on his feet, a down-home orator full of Texas hubris. "Finlan's strength in court is his enormous sense of humor," says State District Judge John Marshall. "He also likes to argue."

Venable had the mechanical know-how. He is the technician, the numbers-cruncher, the book man--approaching the letter of the law with the same fundamentalist sense of inerrancy as he does the Bible. Yet once provoked in court, he seldom turns the other cheek, always giving better than he gets. He is driven by the spiritual certainty that he is doing the right thing.

Together they seemed an odd couple. But their strengths and weaknesses balanced each other out. "We melded together extremely fast, " says Venable. "Within a few weeks, we were simpatico, confidants ...became good friends."

But, as they quickly learned, pro se's weren't taken seriously in the courthouse. They turned that bias to their advantage. DISD attorney Don Hicks treated their discovery motions as frivolous, their requests for reams of records as unreasonable. Perhaps Hicks was too busy running for city council, but he failed to answer their requests by the court's deadline. A judge ordered boxes of DISD documents turned over for their inspection.

They didn't just use their discovery powers as litigators to gather information against DISD; they whipsawed the district by filing dozens of requests as citizens under the Texas Open Records Act. Venable was spending so much time at the DISD administration building that Judge Hall ordered him to bring his own copy machine and paper.

Their relentless inquiry began having an effect. They discovered still more irregularities in the handling of the 1985 bond funds.

The district had its own in-house construction company, known as the Building Improvement Force (BIF). Its existence limited the need for competitive bids on construction projects. BIF would initially fund the work from its own maintenance budget, then reimburse itself from the bond fund as it did the job.

Finlan and Venable felt that if the work was done at all, it was done at an exceedingly inflated figure--its projected rather than actual cost. Through this scheme, they concluded, huge amounts of money had been illegally transferred from the bond account to the operating account. "They had all this money left over from the '85 bond election from projects they didn't build," says Venable. "So they ripped off the bond fund to augment the general fund to keep down taxes." Although Finlan and Venable generally had no argument with saving taxpayers money, they didn't like the idea of it happening through broken promises and unbuilt schools. Another $25 million, they alleged, had been withdrawn from the bond fund, placed in certificates of deposit, and never properly accounted for.

School attorneys treated each new allegation as frivolous, a waste of taxpayers' money. They tried to stonewall the pair, hoping these "madhatters," as attorney Hicks called them, would eventually grow frustrated and go away.

But Hicks didn't know Finlan and Venable.
If some procedural roadblock stopped them in court, they would take their case to the media, enlisting the help of TV reporters looking for hot tips and good ratings.

Finlan and Venable have often been accused of being publicity hounds, of cozying up to the media just to see their names in print. But they claim they view the media as simply one more garden tool to level the playing field. Says Venable: "We don't have money, so we need the press."

At first, the media was reluctant to chase their leads. But Finlan became a master at playing the press. He had a sense for what was newsworthy. He knew his facts cold. And he told a great story. Sometimes his leads would pan out; sometimes they didn't. But that wouldn't stop Finlan from calling a reporter the next time. And the next.

Brett Shipp at KDFW-Channel 4 cut his investigative teeth on the facts they fed him. "Finlan shops around his ideas and suspicions to see if anyone salutes," says Shipp, now working in Tulsa. "Quite often, I would salute."

Finlan and Venable brought Shipp to the Lincoln Instructional Center to investigate whether a new loading dock had been built, as claimed. Shipp found only cosmetic repairs--not the $30,000 loading dock charged to the bond fund. "We found some instances where they had double-billed for work that was supposedly done," recalls Shipp. "Others where the work was never done at all."

Under pressure, DISD officials in February 1992 agreed to an internal audit of the maintenance department. The auditors discovered that more than $300,000 had been mistakenly charged to the bond fund because transfers had been based on construction estimates, rather than actual cost--just as Venable and Finlan had claimed.

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