By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Attorney Dennis Eichelbaum's law firm is paid about $650,000 a year to serve as general counsel for the Dallas Independent School District, providing routine legal advice, handling lawsuits, and things of that nature.
Not surprisingly, disgruntled citizens with a beef against the district sometimes name Eichelbaum personally as a defendant when they file lawsuits against DISD. When that happens, Eichelbaum must walk a narrow line. While he's paid a lot of taxpayer dollars to look out for the school district, he's also entitled to look out for himself.
Eichelbaum may have crossed the line last week during an unsuccessful effort to extricate himself as a defendant from two lawsuits filed by longtime DISD gadflies Rick Finlan and Don Venable. The lawsuits, in part, involve legal advice Eichelbaum gave DISD on how to fight Finlan and Venable.
On June 17, Eichelbaum tried to get himself off the hook in the suits, but ended up raising the troubling possibility that he was prepared to place his own interests ahead of the district's.
In a telephone call to Venable--which Venable taped and provided to the Dallas Observer--Eichelbaum said he was interested in "getting out of being a defendant in these lawsuits" and asked Venable "what you were interested in in exchange for that."
Later in the brief conversation, Venable asked Eichelbaum to make a proposal. Eichelbaum immediately brought up the topic of a judgment that Venable has been ordered to pay in one of the DISD lawsuits.
Although Eichelbaum never explicitly stated it, Venable--and partner-in-litigation Finlan--contend that Eichelbaum's point was hard to miss. The DISD attorney, they say, was suggesting that he could make a $2,500 judgment against Venable go away if Venable would drop Eichelbaum from the lawsuits.
Such an arrangement might please Eichelbaum, but it shouldn't please DISD board members and taxpayers, who Finlan contends are truly entitled to the judgment Eichelbaum appeared willing to trade away.
In a telephone interview this week, Eichelbaum acknowledged having a conversation with Venable and raising the topic of the judgment. But Eichelbaum insisted that he never specifically proposed any sort of trade because the judgment "is not mine to trade." Eichelbaum says his overtures to Venable were intended as a normal opening for settlement talks. "I was trying to find out if there is a way to resolve this without further litigation," Eichelbaum said.
That's certainly not the way Venable and Finlan interpreted the call, and the tape does seem to suggest that Eichelbaum was seeking to make a trade. Here are the pertinent excerpts:
EICHELBAUM: I am interested, if at all possible, in getting out of being a defendant in these lawsuits. You've got plenty of defendants, and I wanted to know what you were interested in in exchange for that.
VENABLE: I'm interested in going to trial. Best way to get out of being a defendant is to get the trial over.
Eichelbaum warned Venable that reaching trial could take years. He offered Venable a chance to "get rid of one defendant." Venable was unmoved.
VENABLE: You're the best [defendant]...You're the main one. You're the one that started all this...Everybody else, everybody else is frosting, you're the cake."
Eichelbaum seemed ready to quit. "OK, well..."
But then Venable gave him an opening.
VENABLE: You are perfectly free to propose something to me.
EICHELBAUM: Well, as you know, I have a judgment against you.
Venable immediately balked, telling Eichelbaum that "if anybody has a judgment, it's the school district," and not Eichelbaum personally. Eichelbaum ended the conversation shortly thereafter.
Who is entitled to the judgment in question--and how much taxpayer money has been spent pursuing it--is crucial to understanding the potential impropriety of Eichelbaum's conversation.
Finlan and Venable have filed a half-dozen lawsuits against DISD, naming also, in different combinations, the district's lawyers, school board members, and administrators as defendants. Eichelbaum is a named defendant in two of the suits.
The first--filed in state district court--claims that DISD and its lawyers used a defamation lawsuit to violate Finlan and Venable's free speech rights. DISD sued Finlan and Venable for $280 million, after the two men wrote a letter criticizing a school bond proposal to an investment banking firm.
The second suit in which Eichelbaum is named is in federal court, and grew out of an attempt by Finlan and Venable to see the contents of former DISD school board president Bill Keever's campaign checkbook.
Neither of the lawsuits has been resolved. It is a third, entirely separate case that spawned the $2,500 judgment against Venable.
In April 1996, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Venable to pay the $2,500 fine because he had filed a frivolous and unsubstantiated lawsuit. (Venable was trying to get copies of publicly filed campaign finance reports. Venable claimed Eichelbaum and Board Secretary Bob Johnston blocked him from obtaining the documents. A lower court judge denied his claim, and Venable appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which slapped him with the judgment.)
Venable has never paid the judgment, saying he doesn't have the money. But DISD has continued to press him for payment, even going so far as to depose Venable, his wife, and his daughter. In fact, Finlan claims the district has spent some $50,000 pursuing the $2,500.