By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The 1992 bond election passed by a 2-1 margin. The TEA audit had found no illegality in the use of the '85 bond funds.
But Finlan and Venable were just getting started. "We had to establish a sense of paranoia in government," explains Finlan. "They had to be afraid of us." But it was Finlan and Venable who seemed paranoid. They dismissed the TEA audit as a collusive "whitewash."
"At some point, you have to go on to the next issue," says Sandy Kress. "But they kept pushing the same '85 bond buttons and forcing us to retrace our steps." The audit did validate some of their complaints; auditors were unable to trace $5 million in bond interest earnings. Yet the study found little evidence that the district had misapplied its bond funds.
After the auditor's findings were filed with the court, Finlan and Venable dropped their original bond case. They told the press they wanted to concentrate on their civil rights case, that they would prove their old bond allegations in this new case. "It became a bigger issue than the bond money," recalls Venable. "For the trustees to manipulate the political process by suing [their] critics was an attack on the American system of government."
Judge Marshall seemed to have lost patience with their tactics, at one point fining the pair $2,500 for frivolous discovery motions. He later dropped the fine against Finlan. Still Eichelbaum doggedly pursued Venable, convincing the judge to issue an arrest warrant because Venable had failed to pay the fine. "Eichelbaum wanted his pound of flesh," recalls Marshall. "They had been jabbing him for months, and he wanted to get even."
On February 6, 1993, the pair invited the press to witness Venable's arrest. They convinced two sheriff's deputies to take Venable into custody, handcuff him, then escort him into Marshall's court with TV cameras rolling. The judge never looked up from the bench. He listened to a brief explanation from Venable's lawyer about denial of due process. Then he cut Venable loose.
Eichelbaum claims the tactics he employed were "nothing personal" and "strictly business." Yet a framed copy of the arrest warrant hangs like a trophy on his office wall.
On March 12, Eichelbaum once again tried to have Venable held in contempt, demanding that he pay his fine. After the judge refused to take any further action, Leonard Schwartz, Eichelbaum's law partner, approached Venable outside the courtroom, placed his arm around him, and asked: "Where is the $2,500?"
According to Brett Shipp, who captured the incident on camera, Venable told Schwartz to "stay out of my face." But as Schwartz turned to leave, Venable brushed the back of his jacket with his three fingers. Before the day's end, Schwartz had filed a civil case against Venable, asking for $10,500 in damages for the "offensive touching."
Spiraling the absurd conflict further, Venable counter-sued for assault. Finlan joined in, filing stacks of pleadings alleging old causes of action and conspiracies. Schwartz must have had enough. He eventually dropped his suit. "You hit me and I hit back hard," explains Finlan. "No one respects you if you don't."
The two sides kept taking ludicrous swipes at each other--mostly in purple court pleadings. "Dirty is the name of the game for Eichelbaum," Finlan wrote. He accused Eichelbaum of a "vomitus moral and ethical code of conduct" and repeatedly urged the court to disqualify Eichelbaum from the case: "Such a sociopathic practice of law should have no place in American Jurisprudence."
Eichelbaum, in turn, alleged that he had become the object of Finlan's "obsessive vengeance," the "fatal attraction of Finlan's poisonous pen." He urged the court not to allow Finlan to hide behind his pro se status, to "subject him to the highest sanctions permitted by law."
On May 24, 1993, Judge Marshall finally sorted through all the sidebar trash and ruled on the district's claim of tortious interference and defamation. The judge dismissed the case. "It was clear DISD was repressing their First Amendment rights," reflects Marshall.
Finlan and Venable wasted little time in celebration. Getting back to plotting strategy for their civil-rights case, they became fixated with getting their hands on the tape of "a secret meeting" they claimed would show how the trustees and Eichelbaum had illegally schemed against them.
Eichelbaum denied that a secret meeting had ever taken place. "No evidence has been presented...to even suggest a secret meeting occurred," he declared in court documents. "...This is another red herring tactic by Finlan to create governmental mistrust. It also supports the contention that perhaps the court should order a psychological evaluation of Finlan since he seems to find 'secret meetings' and governmental coverups everywhere."
Eichelbaum must have objected to the word "secret," because the district later admitted in court papers that its trustees did meet with him in an executive session on September 24, 1992. The district refused to reveal whether the board had discussed suing the pair during the closed-door meeting. Finlan and Venable contended that any legal privilege of confidentiality was forfeited because the meeting itself was illegal.
The tape became the subject of its own hyperbolic war of wills. But the issue got buried under a sea of rulings and recusal motions, as the case hopscotched around the courthouse, transferred from Judge Marshall to Judge Skipworth-Hunt to Judge Moye.