Falling star

In the black business community, Alphonso Solomon's promise isn't worth much anymore

It wasn't long ago that Alphonso Solomon was considered a rising star among black business owners in Dallas, a walking testament to the notion that ambition and business savvy could bring prosperity to the city's minority community.

Solomon had started three independent companies in South Dallas--a consulting business, a janitorial service, and an accounting firm. His business acumen landed him contracts and contacts with large and small clients, lured by his promises of financial prowess. It also landed him volunteer positions on economic development boards and even a Quest for Success award, given by the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce to black entrepreneurs who make a difference. He was, it seemed, a man on the rise.

But Solomon's businesses are now in receivership, some of his contacts have distanced themselves from him, and his reputation has been battered by lawsuits filed by people who were once his business allies.

Solomon spends much of his time in court, locked in a 4-year-old legal battle that began when a former employer accused him of stealing money, and former business partners accused him of usurping their dreams. The battle has spawned a mountain of legal paperwork, actions by a bevy of attorneys, and lingering bitterness. Lawsuits have prompted countersuits that have begotten appeals, eventually forcing Solomon to file for bankruptcy.

The legal labyrinth obscures an easy answer to the most puzzling question about Solomon:Is he the smart, resilient businessman some people believe is beset by hard times and harsh accusations, or an opportunistic hustler who seduces other minority business owners, gains their trust, and then takes their money and their dreams?

The answer depends on whom you ask.
"He's a highly principled individual," says Mike Massad Jr., one of Solomon's former attorneys. "He has the courage of his convictions. He believes in his own abilities. He is determined."

Massad represented Solomon during one of the many phases of Solomon's bankruptcy proceeding. Massad parted amicably with Solomon, he says, because Solomon was uncompromising in his insistence about how the bankruptcy be handled, and Massad could not continue to work for a client who wouldn't take his advice.

Josephine Latson's view of Solomon is less generous. Latson and her husband, Donald, own a garage-door repair company and used to rent space from a corporation Solomon controlled. Solomon evicted the couple's business, they say, when the Latsons protested his high-handed behavior.

"I think Solomon is a shark," Josephine Latson says.
For his own part, Solomon isn't saying anything. Visits, phone calls, and a letter sent to his DeSoto home by the Dallas Observer produced no response.

Documents filed in the myriad legal proceedings that have engulfed Solomon, however, paint a picture of a smart, tenacious businessman who has nonetheless turned many of his former allies against him.

In 1985, Solomon became involved with Graham Barber College. The college, founded in 1968 by Johnny Graham, is a venerable Dallas institution. For almost three decades, it has trained barbers and hair stylists who have fanned out across North Texas. The college now has eight locations.

The college initially brought Solomon in as a management consultant, and in 1987 Solomon was awarded a contract to run the business, court records show.

The contract gave Solomon and his consulting firm--Alphonso Solomon Company Inc.--a free hand running the day-to-day operations, and control of the books. It also gave him 10,000 shares of the company's stock, and provided that Solomon would succeed Johnny Graham as president of the college's board of trustees. Later, as a board member, Solomon bought 20,000 more shares of the company's stock.

In 1988, Johnny Graham stepped down as president of Graham Barber College for health reasons. After Graham's departure from the college, Solomon became president of the board of directors. Graham died in October 1990.

Initially, court documents indicate, the college did well under Solomon's management. Gross revenues steadily increased, and the college turned a profit. But after Graham died, the relationship between Solomon and the college's other principal shareholders--Graham's widow, LaFrance, and his two oldest associates, Emmanuel Phillips and Robert Brown Sr.--deteriorated.

According to an affidavit later filed by LaFrance Graham, a check of the college's books revealed that--after her husband's death--Solomon began paying himself and his companies a lot more money than they were entitled to.

Mrs. Graham also claimed that Solomon issued himself more than 16,000 shares of company stock without authorization. Some of the college's checks began to bounce, she claimed, because Solomon was taking money from college accounts. She, Brown, and Phillips said that Solomon took more than $500,000 from the college between 1989 and 1993.

Ultimately, Mrs. Graham and other shareholders sued Solomon, claiming he was improperly siphoning money from the college. Solomon sued back, and a complex legal wrangle ensued.

Perhaps the most lucid rendition of what happened is contained in an order handed down last year by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Felsenthal, who wound up with the task of sifting through the tangle of litigation resulting from Solomon's stewardship of the college. The Graham Barber College litigation was ultimately swallowed up in Solomon's bankruptcy.

"A suit brought to get Alphonso Solomon's attention has multiplied into an acrimonious dissolution of a business relationship gone sour," Felsenthal's order began. "The court must sort through the wreckage."

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