Rambo Justice

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

Much of the battle has focused on discovery abuse by the attorneys, motions for sanctions, and other Rambo-oriented tactics. Yet to be decided are the merits of a bitter custody dispute that has April Brewer challenging Bill's fitness as a parent and contending that his uncompromising need to win colors his judgment, even where his own children are concerned. In court papers, she maintains that he is unfaithful, that he is not the active father he claims to be; rather, being overly concerned with appearances, he only wants to give the impression of being head of a large family. Why else would he suggest to third wife April, contrary to her wishes, that his second wife become the godmother of their child? Although Bill claimed he was doing it to build the relationship between the children of both his marriages, a court-appointed psychologist found Bill's view of the family "unusual and unrealistic." Citing Bill's other failed marriages and relationships, the psychologist believed that "while Bill clearly loves his children, many of his important life choices seem to belie the family values he expressed."

Whatever Bickel and Brewer's reasoning, by 1995, the pair appeared to be reining in their Rambo selves--and showing more heart than mouth.

In November 1995, when white-bread Bickel & Brewer, infamous for its high fees and rowing team, announced it was going into the pro bono business and opening up a storefront in South Dallas, there was one question on the minds of many lawyers: What's in it for them? These guys weren't in the habit of offering free legal advice. There had to be some hidden agenda, some way for them to make a buck out of this somehow.

Or maybe it was another one of their PR ploys, a way to shore up their tattered Rambo image and gain some nice-guy kudos. They got a "thumbs up" from The Dallas Morning News for their efforts; the City Council honored the firm for broadening access to legal representation in South Dallas; and Mayor Ron Kirk, who along with Judge John Marshall participated in opening-day ceremonies at the Storefront, was thrilled by the prospect that its presence might promote more development in the southern sector.

If the legal establishment was skeptical, the black community was openly hostile. "They're in the neighborhood to get money, not to give to the community," Daisy Joe of Black Citizens for Justice, Law and Order told the Dallas Examiner. They had no historic commitment to the area; all their talk about wanting to make a difference and giving back to the community was just a couple of white guys trying to make themselves feel better about making all that money.

County Commissioner John Wiley Price was dubious as well, until he invited Bickel and Brewer on his radio show to debate the topic. "There was a feeling," says Brewer, "that we were presumptuous to think our service was needed when there were minority law firms in the southern sector providing legal services already." As usual, the pair acquitted themselves well: The Storefront would not be competing for the bread-and-butter cases of most black lawyers; it was there to fill a need, to handle small-business litigation in a high-powered manner that most lawyers from the neighborhood didn't have the ability to wage. As far as making money off the community, any profits realized by the Storefront (fees were based on the client's ability to pay) would be plowed back into a charitable trust, for the benefit of worthy causes in the minority community. Price came away mollified, even friendly, and Bickel and Brewer began to feel welcome.

After the initial burst of publicity, the Storefront settled in to tend to the needs of its clientele. An occasional do-gooder story might surface in the press: how the Storefront helped 81-year-old Willie Edwards get his insurance check; how the Storefront was suing Seattle Supersonics basketball star Gary Payton for back child support; how the Storefront was sponsoring a Judicial Lecture Series, each month bringing a different judge to speak to the minority community about truth, justice, and the American way. But eventually the publicity and goodwill generated from the opening of the Storefront had pretty much played itself out--that is, until the ascendancy of Dr. Yvonne Gonzalez to superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District in January 1997.

The way Bill Brewer likes to tell it: All last summer, the Storefront had been besieged by calls from black former DISD employees who had been summarily terminated by a Stalinist superintendent who was running the district like a "gulag." Black educators were her targets mostly, denied their jobs without due process, dismissed for some contrivance that seemed to be known in the press almost before it was known to them. Her actions were payback, some suspected, for a conspiracy instigated by black leaders such as John Wiley Price and local NAACP President Lee Alcorn, who she believed had been trying to topple her regime from the day she took office. But anyone who wouldn't support her, says Brewer--whether white, brown, or black--was marked for expulsion.

Taking her on would be no easy task. Gonzalez was a walking billboard for political correctness. The first woman superintendent, the first Hispanic superintendent--she was a cause celebre in the Latino communities, which had always felt locked out of the corridors of DISD power. Enormously charismatic, she immediately became the darling of the media, and her steely-eyed stance on district waste and fraud endeared her to downtown business types with a vested interest in keeping school taxes low. Finally someone would be getting to the bottom of what everyone had suspected for years: The district was rife with corruption. By April 1997, she had called in the FBI and launched her own internal investigations, which would extend to overtime fraud, contract rigging, kickback schemes. Most of the problems stemmed from the district's management division, an area under the control of chief financial officer Matthew Harden. But she also used these investigations as a pretext--Brewer claims--to rid herself of the enemies in her midst.

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