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."
At very least, Finlan and Venable have succeeded in another of their goals: rattling public officials.
Dallas' killer gadflies have struck again.
Rick Finlan and Don Venable see themselves in exalted terms--as public tribunes, striking a blow for the little guy against the behemoth of intractable bureaucracy. They claim to have no agenda--other than seeing that government remains accountable to the people. "We do it for fun and to live as free men," quips Finlan.
In truth, their impact is no joke.
A lawsuit they filed exposed illegal secret meetings of a city council committee--and brought arena negotiations to a virtual standstill. Their crusade against a school trustee revealed campaign-reporting violations--and reduced a grown man to tears. "They have made me very, very uncomfortable on several occasions," recalls Councilman Al Lipscomb, a past target. "Very uncomfortable."
But nothing compares to their holy war against the Dallas school district--a siege fought in front of eight judges that has helped keep six DISD attorneys employed and cost taxpayers nearly a million dollars--so far. Says school board president Sandy Kress: "I have come to the conclusion, sadly, that there isn't a constructive bone in their bodies."
But those who see Finlan and Venable merely as ineffective gadflies, irritating for the sake of irritation, seriously misjudge them. Their motivations are too complex, their indignation too righteous, their sting far too venomous. Although Finlan and Venable defy easy description, it is perilous to dismiss them. After all, they have been known to sue for less.
Don Venable recalls, with--of course--considerable outrage his first experience as a government watchdog.
It was September of 1990. He was a 36-year-old seminary student, sitting in his Far East Dallas home, taking a break from his studies. Aimlessly, he flipped between TV channels until he hit upon minister Louis Farrakhan giving a speech, he remembers, "about the white man being the devil's race."
Venable taped the program, thinking he might discuss it in class at the Dallas Theological Seminary. But his fascination quickly turned to anger when he realized that the program was being broadcast on the DISD public-access channel. "I said to myself, 'not with my tax dollars, you don't!'"
This was the first time he took action against the district--and the last time it would happen by accident. Venable convinced an assistant superintendent to end the broadcasts. But he had no idea what he had stepped into.
The school board was fiercely split along racial lines. "Tirades about institutional racism were daily fare," says former trustee Ed Grant, sitting on the Anglo side of the divide. So when the Farrakhan matter came up at a school board meeting, irate students flooded the auditorium, complaining that the district was denying them Farrakhan's message of black self-reliance.
Don Venable was permitted his three minutes to address the board. He had photocopied pages of Farrakhan's speeches and presented them to the board as evidence that the station had become "a propaganda tool for the Nation of Islam." Venable says that black trustee Kathlyn Gilliam threw the exhibit back at him in disgust. "She told me to get out and never come back."
Venable felt humiliated. He had exercised his First Amendment rights and had been met with...governmental arrogance! Though he was studying for the ministry, his amiable spirit belied an Old Testament vengeance. "The school board was out of control," he concluded. "It needed to be brought down."
For Venable, the offense was intensely personal, an insult to the political process he had worshipped since childhood.
Even at age six, Don Venable sat glued to the TV, watching gavel-to-gavel coverage of both the Democratic and the Republican 1960 presidential conventions. He didn't fall in love with politics, he says, as much as he fell in love with government. He grew up in Houston as a Kennedy Democrat, working on the Hubert Humphrey campaign at age 14. But he cried when George Wallace was shot--saw it as an attack upon "the Republic" that he took personally. He became so involved in the McGovern campaign during 1972 that he eventually dropped out of the University of Houston.
Venable spent the next four years in the Air Force, gathering intelligence on reconnaissance flights in the Pacific. By 1979 he was back in Houston waiting to pursue his "childhood dream" of running for the state legislature. Meanwhile, he worked as a carpenter, became an elder in his church--and a Republican.
Venable says he felt betrayed by Jimmy Carter, upset by his ambivalence. Ronald Reagan became the new object of his political affection. In 1982, Venable ran for the Texas House, receiving strong financial backing from a prominent Christian businessman. Unfortunately, Venable was running in Meyerland, a heavily Jewish Houston suburb. Its Jewish Democratic incumbent cast him as the next coming of Jerry Falwell.
All things considered, Venable made a respectable showing, with nearly 40 percent of the vote. He also endeared himself to the Christian Right. He began speaking at churches, teaching grass-roots political activism to fundamentalists.
Venable, who lacked a college degree, used his evangelical contacts to win special dispensation to pursue a master's degree from the Dallas Theological Seminary. In 1987, he moved his wife Martha and three school-age children to Dallas, with no money, no car, and no job.
Martha found work as a sales administrator with a manufacturing firm. Don helped out when he could between classes, working part-time as a legal assistant for his brother David, a bankruptcy attorney.
By then, he had become uncertain about his plans to become a minister. He was a man divided, split between his spiritual and civic selves. It took the Farrakhan situation, he says, to harmonize that conflict.
Venable believes, as do many evangelicals, that government is necessary "to confine man's sinful nature and create social order from chaos." But since government is run by men tempted by power and money, government itself also needs to be limited, scrutinized, held in check.
After the Farrakhan flap, Venable began scrupulously watching the school board trustees. "I grew interested in the personalities down there. I was trying to understand the nature of the beast." For more than a year, he immersed himself in the self-directed study of municipal and school law. Then he went after the woman who had scorned him--trustee Kathlyn Gilliam.
Through his research, Venable decided that Gilliam had used her influence to benefit a community group called The Political Congress for African-American Women. He felt the group was effectively a political action committee, which, through Gilliam's help, was using facilities at Lincoln High School at a reduced fee.
In August 1991, he filed a complaint with the district attorney's office, alleging official misconduct. Gilliam denied the charges and the DA declined to prosecute, calling the case an administrative matter, not a criminal one.
Called a racist for his troubles, Venable got nowhere with his complaint. But he did make some local headlines and received several phone calls of support. One came from a man who called himself a government watchdog. He appreciated Venable's efforts and just wanted to introduce himself.
"I just thought he was another kook," recalls Venable.
The man's name was Rick Finlan.
During the 1980s, fighting City Hall had become a contact sport for Rick Finlan. He had gone after Diane Ragsdale, Al Lipscomb, and Annette Strauss. He had spoken out against Starplex and Reunion Arena--and in favor of the Dallas Police Department.
Finlan demonstrated in the streets, wrote letters to the editor, and vented his spleen at city council meetings. One way or another, he made it into the newspapers. He was Don Quixote as played by Rush Limbaugh, media-smart and politically savvy. He got boundless joy out of making life a living hell for wayward public officials.
Suspicious by nature, this hard-boiled son of an IRS agent must have got the message early on that everybody cheats. He was groomed to be a lone wolf, a self-made man--even as a boy. "I told him from the time he was old enough to push a lawn mower that he would have to make it on his own," recalls his father, Owen Finlan.
By the time he was a high school senior at Woodrow Wilson, Finlan was already making a decent living. His Tiger Lawn Care had three trucks and several employees. He was "Mr. Tiger" in college at Baylor, where he made money instead of grades, building his business rather than his resume. Despite a powerful intellectual curiosity, he never managed to graduate.
Always his own boss, Finlan went from landscaper to nurseryman to home remodeler to home builder. Catering to the urban pioneer of the early '80s, he built reproductions of historic homes--English Tudor, Prairie-style, Victorian--all with no formal training in architecture. Somehow, he gleaned the design know-how out of old architectural books. "If he sees a style that strikes his interest, he goes after it like a bulldog," says Tom McDowell, a consultant on historic architecture who worked with Finlan. "He learns as much as he can, then proceeds to get real opinionated about it."
Finlan's opinions weren't limited to architectural motifs. Even as a builder, he always had a cause, a crusade--railing against a building inspector who had done him wrong, a zoning change that seemed to infringe on his property rights. In his many disputes, whether private or public, he carried a hidden tape recorder, hoping to make liars of those who might later claim Finlan was mistaken. "I am wired all the time," he admits proudly. "Most people aren't going to remember what they say."
Underlying Finlan's seeming paranoia is his fundamental mistrust of big government. "Rick would rather be in a position of controlling government than having government control him," says Don Venable. Finlan's conservative Republican credentials have a decidedly libertarian bent. "He believes that too much government ruins everything," says former city council candidate Sharon Boyd, a Finlan ally. "He wants government off his back and out of his life."
He also possesses a general distrust of things he can't control. When first approached about this article, Finlan said: "Iforbid you to do this story." After hours of discussion, he eventually relented, but later refused to pose for an Observer photographer.
As a populist, Finlan demands that public officials act like servants of the people--not masters drunk with power. "I was saying these things before Ross Perot grew ears," he says.
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?
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.
The two troublemakers claimed what the report found was just "the tip of the iceberg." Although the auditors found no ongoing scheme to defraud the bond fund, Finlan and Venable had, in part, been vindicated.
By September 1992, the DISD trustees had endured about all they could stomach of Finlan and Venable. "We just wanted them to stop asking questions and go away," recalls Rene Castilla, then school board president. "They seemed to be addicted to going after us."
Not satisfied with attacking the district as perennial outsiders, Venable wanted to infiltrate the board. He ran for the school board against incumbent Ed Grant in 1992. "I was tired of being criticized for not doing anything constructive," says Venable. "I figured my presence on the board would be enough to stop a lot of things from going on."
Grant turned Venable's lawsuits into a campaign issue, claiming they were a waste of taxpayer dollars, a costly publicity stunt calculated to advance Venable's political ambitions. Venable, denying selfish motives, ran on a platform of "traditional values." He was thumped.
Venable and Finlan had managed to unite the board: hatred for the pair transcended all racial and ideological lines. Black trustees viewed them as vindictive racists. White trustees considered them wasteful gadflies. "The group-think was that these guys were taking away the children's money," says Ed Grant. "The board wanted them stopped."
But the attorneys seemed powerless to end the litigation. The board had paid over $70,000 in legal fees since the case's inception. Marvin Edwards and Kathlyn Gilliam were fined $500 for failing to respond to discovery requests. Don Hicks withdrew from the case.
Two new lawyers, Dennis Eichelbaum and Leonard Schwartz, entered the picture. The board had originally hired the school-law specialists from private practice as in-house counsel to represent the district in personnel matters. Now the trustees placed them in charge of all pending litigation, figuring the move would save the district money on outside counsel.
They were wrong.
Eichelbaum, 30, was a frisky lawyer with limited experience in complex litigation. The board put him under tremendous pressure to "play hardball" with Finlan and Venable. He quickly became the object of their wrath.
"There was something chemical between them," recalls Judge John Marshall, who inherited the case. "He thought they were gadflies and misperceived their determination."
Finlan would chide Eichelbaum with his caustic wit, while Venable would attack with procedural abandon. So frequently were the three in court on motions for sanctions and contempt that Judge Marshall began calling them "my little dysfunctional family."
The trustees were relieved that Eichelbaum was running interference for them. They had more pressing matters to attend to: schools had grown dangerously overcrowded; white flight was draining the tax base; student test scores were drastically down; teacher morale was at an all-time low. The trustees saw the upcoming $195 million bond election as a cure-all for DISD's problems. The money would build new schools and repair old ones. The board believed that its passage even would allow U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders to declare the district desegregated, ending 21 troubled years of federal intervention. There was so much for the district to gain--so much at stake.
No one seemed against the bond issue--except Finlan and Venable. Their logic: Why float a new bond issue when you were still drowning from the old one?
To placate the pair and settle the case, the trustees reluctantly agreed to a second independent audit by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), at a cost of $250,000. Still, Finlan and Venable felt they weren't being taken seriously.
In September 1992, the district had failed to even mention their lawsuit in a disclosure statement filed with Goldman Sachs & Co. The investment bank was about to underwrite $60 million of DISD notes. These notes had nothing to do with the bond election but provided the district with operating capital while it awaited its tax collections.
On September 14, 1992, Finlan and Venable faxed a letter to Goldman Sachs putting the firm on notice that their lawsuit was pending against the district, alleging "fraud, misapplication of bond funds and falsification of government documents... Proceed at your own risk."
"We did a little bit of stick-in-the-eye by going to their bond buyer," admits Venable. "It was a guerrilla tactic to raise havoc and get them to take our situation seriously."
It was also all the justification Eichelbaum needed to go on the offensive. On October 5, 1992, the district sued Finlan and Venable, alleging that they had defamed the district's reputation in the Goldman Sachs letter and interfered with its business affairs. The suit asked for $10 million in actual damages, $3 million in punitive damages--and an additional $270 million "should the bond package scheduled for December of 1992 fail due, in part, to the actions of the defendants." Stranger still, the district sued David Venable, whose only association with the case, apart from being Don Venable's brother, was that his law office owned the fax machine used to send the "tortious letter."
Finlan and Venable hardly needed another plot to fuel their passion and sense of persecution. But the district now had played right into their hands. To them, DISD's suit was a bid to deprive them of their First Amendment rights--harassment of the highest order.
They wanted $10 million for it. They filed a federal civil-rights suit, alleging that the district had conspired to silence its critics. Venable was so outraged, he took an unprecedented step: he hired his own attorney.