Dallas' lawyer joke

A legal comedy of errors led to a $5 million tragedy for the city

On the day the Dallas City Council settled the Cinemark lawsuit, the mood around the horseshoe was grim. This movie-theater thing was just so out of control.

A simple vote two years ago to reject Cinemark's Tinseltown proposal had led to a major lawsuit against the city and eight individual council members, which had resulted in reams of bad press--bad press that was sure to continue after a bunch of movie moguls made off with $5 million worth of taxpayers' money.

As if that weren't bad enough, the settlement was now spawning mini-scandals.

It seems the city's former planning director, Mike Coker, had been recommending the Tinseltown project to the city council while moonlighting for Cinemark's zoning attorneys. Shortly after the Tinseltown vote, Akin, Gump paid Coker $2,000 to testify as an expert witness in an out-of-town lawsuit unrelated to Cinemark.

During this same period, the public learned that City Councilman Chris Luna had leaked a confidential council document to Cinemark's zoning attorney, Kirk Williams, with whom Luna had once practiced law. Luna's indiscretion opened the floodgate of confidential information that ultimately brought down the city's case. The council had suspected this for over a year, but City Attorney Sam Lindsay made it official, causing a Luna feeding frenzy at City Hall.

Would this nightmare never end?
Sitting in council chambers two Wednesdays ago, even the most casual City Hall observer could see that there was serious business at hand. Things were so bad, in fact, that the entire council was actually present and accounted for, all sitting in their seats like schoolchildren, strangely alert and attentive, for once ignoring their desk phones and personal mail. One by one they took turns at the microphone, moaning like sick hounds, all heartsick and broken up about having to part with the big bucks.

Luna was ashen; the mayor uncharacteristically somber. Even Paul Fielding was without his usual Wednesday smirk. Grim, very grim. But wait. Who were those guys at the far end of the horseshoe--the ones who were standing around congratulating each other as the vote was being tallied? Who were these guys in the subdued suits with the big smiles and the sprightly mannerisms, grabbing the city attorney's hand with their big mitts, leering into his face, so happy, happy, happy?

"Who are you guys?" I asked, walking up to join the little victory party.
They were, of course, the only ones who could be happy about all of this mess: the lawyers. No, not Cinemark's lawyers. These were the city's hired guns from a private law firm who were billing the city $1 million for the privilege of allowing the taxpayers to pay out $5 million. One by one, they introduced themselves: Kent Hofmeister, Robert Brown, Richard Pullman. Big, broad champagne smiles all around. Great manly man sighs of relief. And then a jaunty exit through the side door of the council chambers--Larry, Curly and Moe heading back to their cushy, privileged offices at Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox.

Watching them go, it was clear that there must be nothing quite as sweet as the smell of greenbacks on a warm spring day when the bluebonnets are blooming and the taxpayers' heads are getting bashed in.

Make no mistake about it, the taxpayers always get the lousy lawyers.
That's why Ray Hunt has a 100-year choke hold on 25 acres of city-owned property surrounding his Hyatt Hotel--much of which he leases for $100 a year.

That's why former celebrity clergyman Walker Railey is forever free, soaking up the sun in Southern California, while his ex-wife--the victim of an attempted strangulation--lies there, her body twisted up, her mind all but pureed, in a depressing room in an East Texas nursing home.

That's why we've had numerous illegal, closed-door meetings at City Hall about the sports arena. And why Dallas taxpayers got saddled with a $1 million verdict in a pothole case some years back. And why the entertainment sharks who built Starplex walked off with the candy store. And why we just forked over $5 million to a rich movie-theater company that wanted to build a multiplex in a neighborhood that didn't want it.

Because it is clear--after spending a few weeks reviewing courthouse records and talking to more than a dozen lawyers, council members, and courthouse participants in the case--that Vial, Hamilton had no interest in going to trial on this matter for the taxpayers. That it clearly did not have the stomach, the fire, or the nerve to even try to win this case before a jury.

In fact, the lawyers' performances were so lackluster--their faith in their clients so lacking--that Councilman Larry Duncan finally threw his hands up in disgust last summer and brought his own lawyer into the case to defend his, and by extension the city's, position.

"The actions of Vial, Hamilton seemed to say they didn't believe in the case in the first place, and they were in there to cut losses, which isn't the way you negotiate, even if you are one who believes it ought to be settled," says Duncan, one of eight council members who voted against Cinemark building the Tinseltown multiplex and in favor of the neighborhood groups. "The first thing you do is hit the mule between the eyes with a 2-by-4 just to get their attention. Then you start negotiating. They never did that."

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