Rambo Justice

Are bad-boy lawyers Bill Brewer and John Bickel building a bridge to Dallas' minority communities, or trying to sell them one?

If it wasn't the vendors trying to protect themselves as well as Harden, then what was in it for Bickel & Brewer? Certainly Bickel and Brewer's prestige in the African-American community had been enhanced dramatically, and like its judicial lecture series, the Storefront seemed to be bridging a gap by unleashing the forces of a major downtown law firm behind a matter of minority concern. But whether this was bridge-building or empire-building depends on whom you ask. Ask Don Venable, ex-government watchdog and the latest school board trustee, and he will insist it's the latter.

Late last fall, Venable was running for the school board against Jesse Diaz, a Hispanic and supporter of Kathleen Leos. According to Venable, he received a phone call from Bill Brewer, who asked him to visit their downtown offices. Once there, says Venable, "they wanted to know what kind of money I needed to get elected." Venable believed they were trying to broker a political solution to their lawsuits, lining up a board that "would do their will." If they forged an alliance with Venable, he could be the fifth vote necessary to oust Leos from her presidency, or to settle the lawsuit on terms favorable to Harden. Although Venable didn't take their money, he did take their help: Five lawyers from their firm helped him campaign, he says. But he also received the endorsement of John Wiley Price, whom Venable had sued during his watchdog days. "Brewer suggested that he got John Wiley Price to support me," Venable says.

Although Venable spearheaded the overthrow of Leos once he got on the board, he says he parted ways with Bickel & Brewer over the merits of their lawsuit. Unpredictable as ever, he then joined forces with Leos, and in January, told The Dallas Morning News about B&B's attempts to recruit him. Latino grassroots organization LULAC ran with the story and filed a complaint with the Dallas district attorney requesting an investigation of the firm. "We also believe," said Gehrig Saldana, president of LULAC Council 4496, "that due to their alleged involvement through bribery attempts and influence peddling, [Bickel and Brewer] may have denied the Latino community a second Latino on the Dallas public school board."

Bickel categorically denies the bribery allegations, saying he and Brewer did no more than they usually do, cultivating relationships, trying to decide whether they should support Venable, just like they have dozens of other candidates over the years. The DA's office conducted an investigation, interviewing Bickel, Brewer, and Venable, and concluded that no criminal offense had occurred.

Meanwhile, Mike Gruber was bearing down hard in his defense of Leos, fighting a bitter pre-trial war of attrition that never seemed to get at the truth. Gruber repeatedly tried to depose Harden, but Bickel and Brewer fiercely resisted his attempts. Instead, they attacked Gruber, claiming he had gone Rambo, leaking defamatory information to the press about Harden, information that Leos had improperly secured from Ronquillo in his capacity as special counsel. The resulting newspaper accounts, at a minimum, raised questions about Harden's competency, based as they were on internal audits that showed massive improprieties in his department regarding contracts for weatherstripping, roofing, and painting.

Before subjecting their client to a deposition, Bickel & Brewer wanted Gruber and Ronquillo to be deposed first, claiming Harden should, in fairness, have the right to the same information as Leos. Ronquillo then entered the lawsuit, claiming that his attorney-client relationship protected him from discovery as well. Gruber then filed a motion for sanctions against Ronquillo, alleging he had taken inconsistent positions with regard to any wrongful conduct by Harden.

The entire legal quagmire was set for a hearing on February 4 in Judge Gary Hall's court, but Hall would hear none of it. Instead, he referred the case with all its sideshow issues to a mediator who might be able to work all the cases toward settlement.

"Let's give peace a chance," Gruber recalls Bickel telling him. Within a week, all sides had struck an agreement. In exchange for his resignation, the district agreed to settle all claims with Harden for $600,000. Leos would bear none of that cost individually.

For a man who had never lost his job, whose most culpable grievance was against a convicted felon, who had managed by either luck or design to shut down any internal investigation into his on-the-job misfeasance, Matthew Harden had fared remarkably well. And his lawyers, Bickel and Brewer, did what they said they would: represented their client as zealously as they knew how. "I thank God every day that I was blessed enough to find them," Harden says.

But will divine intervention help with the FBI? Although Brewer has been told Harden is not considered a target of its anti-corruption campaign, there is talk among sources close to the investigation that suggests otherwise. When asked at a social gathering if Harden was just incompetent or a crook, one assistant U.S. attorney replied: "Oh, I think he is a lot more than just incompetent, but whether it can ever be proven is another thing."

What the payoff was for the Rambo boys, Bill Brewer and John Bickel, may be just as difficult to prove. For a seven-month period, they dedicated their law firm to Matthew Harden, recouping nothing but their expenses, and essentially donating $500,000-$600,000 of billable time to what they perceived was a noble cause. Certainly there is a selfless part of them that believes in social justice, that wants to make a difference, but there's also an irreverent part that enjoys--as one of their friends put it--"pissing on the leg of the establishment." Then there's the self-aggrandizing part--the part that craves recognition and power and political stroke, and picks its fights accordingly. "It's obvious that these guys want to be the new movers and shakers in the city," says Mike Gruber.

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