By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Bickel handled the deposition of SIS vice president Larry Steging, who testified that Freda Jinks, administrative assistant to Gonzalez, had hired his company to trail Harden because of suspicions he was leaking information to the press. Steging had no direct contact with Gonzalez, but believed Jinks was acting for her boss.
Bickel then began pursuing Jinks to take her deposition, which is what he says smoked her out and drove her into the arms of the U.S. attorney. "She realized she had big problems," he says. Bigger than anyone even at Bickel & Brewer realized. Freda Jinks told federal authorities that she had assisted Gonzalez in picking out $16,000 worth of bedroom and office furniture that was paid for with public money. By the first week in October, Gonzalez had negotiated a plea bargain, and the school board had accepted her resignation--much to the humiliation of the entire city. Despite the bedroom furniture and the tracking device and the office renovations and the sexual harassment charges, there still remained nagging questions about Matthew Harden: Was he really dirty after all? And if he wasn't, how could the "best CFO in the history of DISD" be so blind that he didn't notice what was happening on his own watch?
Finally, Harden had gotten what he said he wanted--a district free of a vindictive woman who had ruined the careers of so many people, a chance for the city to heal--but that didn't silence the Xerox machines at Bickel & Brewer. The firm kept alive the SIS case and kept deposing school board members, old and new: Bill Keever, John Dodd, Ron Price. SIS's lawyer didn't even bother to show up anymore, since it was clear from the questioning that B&B was gunning for bigger game. Trustees Kathleen Leos and Jose Plata and Gonzalez communications director and close ally Robert Hinkle were all targeted to be sued. "We believed that there were still individuals in the power structure that were intent on seeing that Matthew Harden got fired," John Bickel says.
Others took a darker view. "Bickel & Brewer's lawsuits stopped the school board from investigating Harden," says Leos' attorney Mike Gruber. "Anyone who wanted to investigate what he was doing was attacked."
Gruber claims that's what happened to Marcos Ronquillo, the special counsel in charge of the internal investigation. Harden had long maintained that he had tape recordings of Ronquillo doing Gonzalez's bidding by trying to usher him out the door. His attempts to do so would have been the basis for any legal action against him. But on November 3, Ronquillo issued a carefully worded press release that seemed to exonerate Harden of "any illegal or unethical act." Gruber claims that his own investigation revealed that on October 18, Ronquillo had his change of heart after he went to the offices of Bickel & Brewer, where he was threatened "with litigation and harm to his political and economic future." Four days after the press release, B&B sued Leos, Hinkle, and Plata, alleging a conspiracy of grand proportions to terminate Matthew Harden. Noticeably absent from the lawsuit was Marcos Ronquillo.
By suing school board president Kathleen Leos, B&B took on Mike Gruber, a tenacious fireplug of an attorney who says he was irresistibly drawn into the fray by the prospect of tangling with the pair. "I was not going into a pit with a rabid dog without a club," says Gruber. "As far as I was concerned, they were the forces of evil." Gruber had to play catch-up fast. He wasn't present during any of the SIS depositions and began re-deposing several of the key players--Robby Collins and Freda Jinks among them.
In December, Harden sued the entire school district and its trustees, this time in federal court, this time playing the race card, by alleging that DISD directed its wrath at Harden in part "because he is black." Although U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins had briefed the school trustees about the scope of his criminal investigation--saying that it now included kickback schemes and contract rigging--no one had yet to lay a glove on Matthew Harden.
Gruber took his first swing in early December, when he filed a motion for sanctions against Harden, the Storefront, and Bickel & Brewer. "Harden has used this litigation to avoid scrutiny of his own behavior," alleged the Leos motion, which asked for the court to impose sanctions against Harden and his attorneys for $500,000. "The evidence will show that Harden's sole purpose in keeping his position at DISD is to protect himself and his past actions from scrutiny, specifically with regard to certain vendor contracts, in which he and his cronies have a personal and financial interest."
Later filings spelled out the extent of his alleged self-dealing. Harden had a "history of making payments of large amounts of sums in cash"--cash that the pleadings suggest had come from $1 million in kickbacks involving maintenance contracts on 20 DISD buildings for graffiti-resistant paint. Harden adamantly denied receiving any kickbacks, and Bickel & Brewer amended their pleadings, alleging a new slander. Gruber, in these same pleadings, turned the spotlight on Bickel & Brewer, unconvinced the firm was handling the case pro bono and demanding they reveal who was truly funding Harden's litigation.