Rambo Justice

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

Gonzalez came out sad but swinging, denying all accusations and claiming that Harden "has been the subject of an ongoing internal investigation for several weeks now." But she wouldn't disclose the nature of the investigation, although she said she would issue a full report the following week.

On September 15, Bickel & Brewer amended its pleadings, this time attaching exhibits to prove their claims: transcriptions of taped conversations discussing Gonzalez's determination to rid the district of three employees despite there being no evidence of any wrongdoing. And more damning still, sexually suggestive notes purportedly written by Gonzalez corroborated that she was either infatuated with Harden or downright delusional about their relationship.

Yet Brewer says he was surprised that the media wrote so copiously about the sexual harassment claims. Coming from a sophisticated media hound, that seems highly doubtful, particularly as Harden never filed a claim for sexual harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission--a requirement before filing a sexual harassment lawsuit. "Frankly, if we wanted to turn this into a People magazine story, there was a lot of stuff we could have put in," he says. "We put in stuff that was fairly light...but clearly evidence that was really just a signal to Gonzalez and her lawyers that Matthew saved the stuff she sent him."

Gonzalez must have gotten the message, because that same evening, Brewer received a call from her attorney, Dan Hartsfield: The superintendent was interested in talking settlement. The following day, she agreed to resign.

Despite its pro bono status, Bickel & Brewer had waged a blitzkrieg attack against Gonzalez, putting as many as 10 lawyers on the case, working deep into the night, researching the law, slanting the facts--as if the future of the firm were riding on the result. Typical of B&B strategy, the firm had hired a PR agency--Temerlin McClain--to handle the barrage of media requests. At B&B's downtown offices, a local press corps hungrily awaited copies of depositions that were often released the same day they were taken. As each new set of Harden's allegations was about to be filed, calls were placed to local journalists offering them exclusives, informing them that they could come to the courthouse and be the first to get their hands on the pleadings.

Without setting foot in a courtroom, without presenting a shred of testimony, Bickel & Brewer had created a climate that produced a favorable outcome for Harden. For its $20,000 fee, Temerlin McClain would help Bickel & Brewer try the case right where they wanted it: in the court of public opinion.

The Rambo boys were at it again.

The lawsuit and the superintendent's ostensible resignation further polarized an already divided city: Harden became the champion of many African-Americans, and Gonzalez could do no wrong in the eyes of her Latino supporters. Each side saw conspirators lurking behind every corner, a woolly cabal scheming to advance one minority's agenda at the expense of the other. Each side had its boosters on the board of trustees: Board President Kathleen Leos led the pro-Gonzalez forces; the three black trustees--Hollis Brashear, Ron Price, and Yvonne Ewell--led the anti-Gonzalez charge, with an unlikely assist from Anglo member John Dodd, who was new to the board.

Bickel & Brewer thought it had a clean kill for their client--the resignation in exchange for the tapes and notes Harden had accumulated--but the firm got outsmarted when Gonzalez only tendered her resignation and reportedly began lobbying the board not to accept it. "The settlement agreement only said she would 'submit her resignation,'" says her attorney, Dan Hartsfield. It didn't say she would actually quit.

"Our agreement was that she resign, and instead she tenders her resignation," complains Brewer. "Look, it was a play on words."

On September 17, while the school board met to consider her resignation, hundreds of Hispanics gathered outside, shouting and waving placards that read, "If Gonzalez Goes, Harden Goes," and "The Investigations Must Continue." Inside, in a seven-hour session, trustees heard special counsel Marcos Ronquillo present the results of his internal investigation into abuses by "district staffers" regarding maintenance contracts for DISD buildings. No one would comment about whether Harden was a target of that investigation, although the contracts all stemmed from his department. According to sources who spoke with The Dallas Morning News, Gonzalez had hoped these findings would convince board members "to keep her on." The board voted in a split decision, primarily along racial lines, to delay accepting her resignation for 30 days--"a cooling-off period"--so that all charges might be considered.

Bickel & Brewer, however, needed no cooling-off period. The firm amended its lawsuit, suing Gonzalez for $10 million despite earlier assertions that Harden's case was about social justice, not money. And they began to take a flurry of depositions--not in the Harden vs. Gonzalez case, but in Harden vs. SIS, the security company that placed the tracking device on Harden's car. B&B's hardball strategy worked brilliantly: Because Gonzalez was not a party to the SIS lawsuit, her lawyers didn't have the right to be present during depositions and cross-examine witnesses. The depositions that were taken were friendly affairs laced with opinion and speculation that was quite damaging to the school district. Because a gag order was only in place in the Gonzalez case, B&B could release transcripts of the SIS depositions and continue to try its case in the press.

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