By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This is where the plot was hatched--or so the story goes. Not in some smoke-filled room at City Hall where politicos broker deals that placate rather than please, not on the top floor of some downtown bank building where law firms send buttoned-down lawyers to fight for the status quo, not at some breakfast club where "business leaders" peddle influence like smoked fish at a deli.
The first legal salvos of the Revolution on Ross--the coup d'etat that toppled a school district superintendent, some of her cabinet, and a school trustee president, that pitted blacks against browns in dueling conspiracy theories, that scandalized a school district in a manner never thought possible, even for DISD--were fired from a shabby South Dallas legal clinic.
The law office looks drab, sitting as it does in a strip center at the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Atlanta, neighboring Black Jack Pizza, the Four Torch Club, and Graham's Barber Shop No. 6, INC. A brown corrugated metal awning, dented in spots, frames what is little more than a concrete and brick slab otherwise known as "The Storefront."
Inside its glass doors, the furniture is sparse: general issue receptionist desk, office chairs, and sofa--hand-me-downs all. The phone rings occasionally, not much activity really, just a pleasant woman named Natalie fielding calls for lawyers who have yet to arrive. Her litany is the same: We don't do criminal cases, family law cases, no traffic tickets either. The civil cases that we do take are handled on a pro bono basis, according to the client's ability to pay. Accepted for representation are evictions, employment discrimination, the kinds of petty business disputes minorities must often forgo because the money is gone, no attorney wants to handle it, or the case is a dog.
At first blush, there is no hint to the power of this place, no suggestion that this is anything but a cluster of poverty lawyers dispensing social justice to the black community at bargain prices. But carefully arrayed on a narrow wooden coffee table are a handful of marketing brochures instructing would-be clients about the lawyers with whom they are dealing: Bickel & Brewer Storefront, PLLC is the newest innovation of Bickel & Brewer, the most aggressive high-powered litigation firm in the world.
This is the same Bickel and Brewer who were once branded the bad boys of the Dallas Bar--high-priced, high-profile Rambo lawyers whose scorched-earth litigation style is credited by some as forever changing the way the Dallas legal establishment practices law. Driven by the boundless energy and raw chutzpah of its co-founder Bill Brewer, the "litigation boutique" became a pariah within the local legal community, accused of pushing the ethical envelope, running up the costs of litigation, and destroying the gentility of the Dallas Bar. But among the Fortune 500 clients they sought to woo, the firm built a solid reputation as a passionate advocate that would zealously represent their rights--willing to "leave no stone unturned," as they claimed, and do whatever it took to win--and win big.
So in 1995, when Bickel & Brewer decided to open up its storefront operation, catering to the city's disenfranchised, many--including the city's disenfranchised--were skeptical. Were their motives as altruistic as they claimed? Was this a noble attempt to try to make a difference, acknowledging the law's obligation to guarantee justice for all? Had the callous Rambo boys, notorious for charging huge fees for big-ticket corporate clients, suddenly grown a heart?
Even their harshest critics were willing to give Bickel and Brewer the benefit of the doubt, allowing their good work in this African-American community to speak for itself. But in August 1997, when the Storefront began to represent Matthew Harden, DISD's chief financial officer, against then-Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, in one of the most incendiary cases of political intrigue this city has ever witnessed, their motives as well as their tactics were called into question.
Why would the Bickel & Brewer Storefront take on Matthew Harden for free--a man who earned more than $117,000 a year? Was the Storefront more a front for the political ambitions of Bill Brewer and John Bickel than it was a public service catering to the needs of the poor? Did the firm's Rambo approach to representing Harden help fuel a vicious racial conflict between blacks and Latinos? Was the threat of hardball litigation against Yvonne Gonzalez, Kathleen Leos, and others merely a ruse to obfuscate the truth about who was really to blame for DISD's financial debacle? Or were Bickel and Brewer just doing what they had always done, practicing law and life on the edge, zealously representing their client, fighting the good fight the only way they knew how: to the death?
It doesn't matter who you are--there's a seduction that goes on with Bill Brewer. He draws you in, pumps you up, convinces you with a confidence beyond certainty that together, you can destroy the enemy. That is, if he ever shows up. It's a passive-aggressive dance he does, making appointments, canceling them, apologizing through weary secretaries that he had to fly to New York on business or that he's at the mercy of a visitation schedule from hell. He clearly gives you the feeling that his time is more valuable than yours, particularly after he tells you that he bills out at $500 an hour, one of the highest rates of any lawyer in the city.
It's hard to feel neutral about Bill Brewer. A former lawyer with his firm who requested that he not be identified puts it succinctly: "He's a fascinating guy who at one time I loved dearly and hated strongly--and pretty much in the same moment." Embodying many contradictions, he is a family man with three failed marriages, although he acknowledges only two of them; a Republican who harbors Democratic values; a man obsessed with appearances who acts as if it doesn't matter what others think; a not-so-great Gatsby who craves status and wealth and importance and then provokes the very people who can give it to him.
"He was a middle-class kid living near a rich community, and by virtue of his talent and good looks and drive, got access to the country-club way of life," says a former legal associate. "On the one hand, he wants it more than anyone else. On the other hand, he is repulsed by it."
As I drive up to his Highland Park home, his green Jaguar sits in his circular driveway, and I have no reason to think he won't be home as scheduled--except that he is not. After a 30-minute wait, I try his door again, and this time, he answers. His oldest son is sick, he tells me--an ear infection--and he had to pick him up from school. He seems every bit the concerned parent--his kids mean everything to him, his family everything--if he could just get past his divorce, which has lasted almost as long as his marriage.
And how are my sons, he asks me, parent-to-parent. Is the little one sleeping? The big one still giving you headaches?
I know his game. He wants to disarm me emotionally, lure me to his side so I'll connect with his humanity, soften any criticism I might harbor against him. The guy is nothing if not PR savvy.
At 46, William A. Brewer III is as dramatic as he is charismatic--a onetime theater major at St. John's University, he knows how to milk a moment. He looks as if he is living life in a Ralph Lauren ad: Weejuns without socks, chinos without a belt, a navy blazer without a tie. His red-blonde hair, fair skin, and chiseled features conjure up visions of a less-rugged Robert Redford, a comparison he is loath to deny. His voice is Sly Stallone-deep--irrefutable evidence of a New York accent that marks him geographically as well as emotionally. He has built his life and legal career on being a downright chauvinist about his hometown.
Born in Long Island to a large Irish-Italian family, he heaps weighty superlatives on all things New York. The Catholic school he attended was "first-class throughout." He studied debate under a "master," drama under the "god of the voice-over." During law school (Union College in Albany, a "great pedestrian law school"), he clerked for a judge who was "not only the best, but also the most honest judge" in the state. In 1978, after a successful law-school career that included summers being a lifeguard at an exclusive country club and an advanced law degree at New York University, he got a job with the phone company, trying to fend off the breakup of the Ma Bell monopoly. "I went to the largest corporation in the history of the world to the largest legal department in the history of the world to work on the largest cases in the history of the world." It was here that he gained his thirst for the big case.
Brewer is vague about why he moved to Dallas in 1981, but court records show he received a divorce here about the same time. He got a job with Kolodey and Thomas, then a small Dallas firm that was working on a big case. He joined the firm's trial team, which successfully represented clothing manufacturer Farah Jeans in a case that would take on major Texas banks and become a landmark decision in lender liability law.
Though still a baby lawyer, he had grand visions of developing the firm into a commercial litigation powerhouse--but its named partner, Tom Thomas, didn't share his views. In 1982, Brewer either quit or got fired--depending on who's telling the story. A second job at the firm of Glast and Miller resulted in a similar fate after only a few months. "Since I left Bell, I was adamant that I didn't want to take small cases, losers, or just be fixing traffic tickets for some corporate client's son," says Brewer. "I was becoming almost strident in my articulation of how we needed to build a firm...on the back of zealous advocacy."
Although Brewer toyed with returning to New York, he had made definite inroads among the Dallas social set. "When I came to Dallas, I networked at the Park Cities right away," he says. "It was obvious to me that the deb scene was the real focus of Dallas society, and I made it a point to become an escort." Although his Republican credentials were flimsy at best, he also got involved in the Dallas County Young Republicans. "Look, when you go to a community, you figure out how to join that community...when I was living in New York, I figured out how to network the East Side...When I was at NYU, I joined the Jewish Defense League."
The way Bill Brewer networked his way to John Bickel has become law-firm legend. Recently fired and at a party prior to the annual heart ball fundraiser, Brewer met a woman who was proudly sporting a large tennis trophy and "mouthing off," he says, about her tennis prowess. "I took up the challenge for all men and said I could beat her left-handed." Some verbal sparring ensued, and she told Brewer that he reminded her of another "egomaniacal red-headed" lawyer, John Bickel, who was forming his own firm and enlisting new attorneys.
Slightly older than Brewer and married, Bickel seemed more of a by-the-book lawyer. A West Point graduate and decorated army officer, he exuded a credibility that Brewer admits he sometimes lacks. Bickel's credibility "is not rooted in ego and flash and persona...in a trial lawyer, that's a gift," Brewer says. Bickel had been a litigator with an old-guard Dallas law firm, Thompson & Knight, but was driven to start his own practice by a somewhat irreverent entrepreneurial streak that he could no longer deny. "When I was at West Point, I had a couple of unauthorized money-making endeavors," Bickel remembers fondly. "I sold women's panties with 'Beat Navy' on the back. It went over like gangbusters."
They seemed the perfect complement to each other: Brewer, the outspoken dreamer with enough hubris to take on the world; Bickel, the plainspoken pragmatist with enough gumption to take on Brewer. From their first lunch together, they hit it off and became each other's most ardent fans. Some say Bickel was mesmerized by Brewer, a Rasputin who turned the head of a stand-up guy. But others found them uncannily similar. "John had a grand plan, but Bill had bigger dreams," says former law partner Hal Marshall. "John just bought into Bill's dreams."
At first, the pair were part of a larger start-up firm, but after a few months, they broke away, wanting to build the firm at a faster pace than the other partners. In March 1984, they formed Bickel & Brewer--not a full-service law firm with corporate planners and real estate lawyers, but a litigation boutique, the first of its kind in the city--run by a couple of Young Turks who stood ready to make some money and raise some hell.
Bickel and Brewer hit the ground running, leasing an entire floor at the Trammell Crow Center--two lawyers renting 25,000 square feet with little more than a fistful of moxie. A line of credit from Texas Commerce Bank helped some, but building a law firm overnight was no easy task. In the hunt for the big case, they declared themselves the "baddest" lawyers in town, brazenly telling any corporate bigwig who would listen that they were not going to do things the old way--their aggressive approach would be different from the white-gloves civility of the "good ol' boy" downtown legal establishment. "New York firms did not respect their cousins in the Dallas bar," says Brewer. "They thought they were lazy; they thought they were slothful; they thought they were stupid."
Not surprisingly, their approach didn't endear them to the big downtown firms, who, Brewer claims, blacklisted them for not playing ball, erasing any chance of referrals. "The reputation they are developing, whether deserved or not, is that they're behaving in a fashion that is not the Dallas way," Chip Babcock of the local firm of Jackson, Walker told the American Bar Association Journal in 1989. "Dallas lawyers are gentlemen to each other. These two act like New York lawyers."
High praise, thought Brewer, whose marketing pitch included selling Bickel & Brewer as one of the few "New York-quality" firms in Texas. That meant B&B would stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That meant it would search nationally for its new recruits, ensuring quality by enticing blue-chip law students with salaries that were the highest of any law firm in the country. It also meant adopting a hardboiled, take-no-prisoners litigation style that was antithetical to the way Dallas practiced law.
Brewer, who claims he has always been lucky, found himself in the right place in the late '80s as the S&L crisis turned the city into a hotbed of "big ticket litigation." With real estate prices plummeting, developers turned to litigation to save themselves--or at least buy enough time until the market turned around.
B&B drew fierce criticism for its delaying tactics in these cases--piling on paperwork, wallet-whipping the other side, being obnoxious to opposing counsel, bogging down a case in procedure so it would rarely get heard on the merits. The firm was accused of dumbing down its clients for depositions: In preparation, clients were told to repeat each question to themselves, says one former associate, taking their time before answering. During these pauses, they were to run through a list of preferred responses: yes, no, I don't know, I don't recall. Clients were also told that they had the right to be asked a proper question--nothing vague or ambiguous. B&B lawyers would show them a dictionary, pointing to all the different meanings, for example, that could be attached to the word "do."
Two-day depositions would drag on for two weeks as B&B clients would claim they didn't understand the words "earn," "rely," "where," and "when."
"By the time they got to the deposition, they were reticent robots," says the associate. "Witnesses were told to tell the truth, but we broke down their perception of everyday conversation."
This tactic not only invoked the wrath of several judges, but grabbed the attention of the press, who labeled Bickel and Brewer the Rambo boys, cultivating a mythology around their sharp practices that still lasts to this day: Bill Brewer, getting into a jury box, flirting with a female juror, and causing a mistrial; B&B lawyers coaching their witness to spill coffee on legal documents when things got too heated; Bill Brewer demanding that a deposition be scheduled for 6 a.m., then arriving 30 minutes late. Bickel and Brewer became the poster boys for an aggressive '80s litigation style that was, in truth, sweeping the country as law schools graduated more lawyers than ever before, and the increased competition made the entire profession more cutthroat.
Of course, few in Dallas played it meaner than Bickel & Brewer. Under the ethical battle cry of "zealous advocacy," a Bickel and Brewer lawyer was expected never to ask for an extension or give one, to fight every motion, to turn over every rock. Opposing counsel wants to go on vacation--too bad. He misses a filing deadline--tough luck. Cutting some slack to a brother lawyer--not this firm. Winning was the only option; losing was not only unacceptable, but could destroy the reputation of the firm.
Some lawyers refused to get involved in cases if Bickel & Brewer was on the other side. Others felt they had no choice but to play hardball back. "We went through a couple of years of orchestrated assault on this law firm," says Brewer. "Every time I set a deposition, I got noticed for eight at the same time."
The firm became whipping boys for the kind of cultural backlash that made lawyers the butt of jokes. They were referred to as "Bickel and Skewer," "Bicker and Brew." Even U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer got into the act, taking a shot at the pair when he wrote a skit during Bar None, a 1989 production of the Dallas Bar Association, which contained these lyrics:
When Bickel and Brewer do their thing.
Decent folk catch hell...catch hell
When Bickel and Brewer play lawyer
We all do things that smell.
'Cause the Rambo crap
Is the only thing little minds understand.
Nevertheless, the Rambo boys seemed to bask in the limelight. "The biggest offense would have been if the press had stopped writing about them," says a former B&B associate. "They thrived on it--whether good or bad." Brewer admits he has at different times employed a public relations agency to promote his firm. One of their more flippant self-promotions entailed adopting snakes at the Dallas Zoo as part of its Adopt-a-Pet program. Snakes and lawyers seemed a natural union, particularly with journalists, who pounced on the promotion. The story made the Wall Street Journal and brought new business to the firm. At various times, Motorola, American Petrofina, Prentiss Properties, Trammell Crow, and Budget Rent-a-Car lined up to play hardball.
Yet their mean-streets persona meant nothing if they couldn't deliver the goods. "I liked going in there and kicking people's butts," says former partner Hal Marshall. "But that only happened because we knew the law better, knew the facts better, and had these great strategies going." Rather than take in 100 cases, the firm limited itself to, say, 30, and then worked them to death. Ten lawyers might be assigned to the same case with either Bickel or Brewer vetting each decision.
Brewer was clearly the rainmaker for the firm, bringing in most of the business himself. "He would make commitments to his clients other lawyers don't like to make," says a former lawyer with the firm. "But Bill Brewer is without fear. He will take any risk. He never gave them guarantees, but he came close." When he delivered on his promise, says the lawyer, "it would invigorate his client to go even further."
Brewer was also the big-picture guy, the chess player who could think three to four moves ahead and come up with solutions--whether inside the courtroom or out. In 1991, when Jerry Jones wanted to sell alcohol in Texas Stadium, he turned to Bickel & Brewer, who, if they hadn't negotiated an out-of-court settlement, stood ready to lobby the legislature to pass a law that would allow the sale of liquor in all stadiums across the state.
"[Bill] has the uncanny ability to think outside the box," says another former associate. "He is also a good writer, very creative." The firm's pleadings were known for their storytelling style; dramatic to the point of being hyperbolic, they grabbed the attention of their intended audience--judge, jury, the press--much more so than the archaic legalese that most lawyers still clung to.
But the idea man was, at times, amazingly undisciplined, and needed an implementer to keep him grounded. He found it in John Bickel, a litigator who had the experience of a hundred trials under his belt, and oozed a genuineness in the courtroom that enabled juries to empathize with his side of the case. Brewer, on the other hand, came across as too slick, too cocky, too New York, particularly for Texas juries.
Bickel & Brewer built on its early successes, opening small satellite offices in New York, Chicago, and Washington, trying to create the appearance of a national law firm almost overnight. But created as well was a corporate culture that was almost as notorious as their litigation tactics. The firm gained a reputation as a sweatshop, working lawyers and secretaries until after midnight for weeks at a stretch. "It was expected that you worked nights and weekends," says one former paralegal. "The pay was great, but since you didn't have a life, there was no time to spend it."
Not surprisingly, turnover was incredibly high, particularly during those early years. "The firm was built for attrition," says one legal headhunter. "It is difficult to make partner, and since Bickel and Brewer kept all the clients for themselves, they don't let you build your own practice."
"I used to walk in and say, 'Who quit today?' and someone would throw out a name," says another ex-paralegal. "At least one lawyer a month would leave." Of course if you pay $97,000 for a first-year associate, as the firm did just last year, any one lawyer becomes easily replaceable.
Because of the intensity of the work, the long hours, the addiction to winning, an esprit de corps developed among those who remained. With Brewer being such a preppy, he organized a Bickel & Brewer rowing team and a Bickel & Brewer jogging team. Yet other firm members were just biding their time until their student loans were paid off, or saving their money in what was referred to as their "fuck you fund."
Still, with partner meetings in the Hamptons, firm meetings in Boca Raton, limos waiting at La Guardia to drive associates to the firm's Manhattan apartment, it was a heady affair, working at B&B. Money flowed in from the staggering legal fees that were charged. Bickel and Brewer were among the top-grossing lawyers in the state.
As the pair's wealth accumulated, their relationship grew almost pathological in its symbiosis: They bought matching white Porsches. They dressed alike in the office: suspenders, tie, no jacket, and out of the office, polo shirt, raised collar, khakis. They seemed to prefer their own company, isolating themselves after they moved in 1990 to their posh Bank One offices in an area secretaries referred to as "the kingdom."
Despite being the firm you love to hate, Bickel & Brewer were masters at cultivating relationships, particularly among the local judiciary. Just last year, the firm was accused of cultivating state District Judge John Marshall a little too closely. In a story first reported in the Dallas Observer, Judge Marshall faced accusations that he had shown partiality toward a B&B client by granting nearly a $1 million summary judgment in its favor. While the case was pending, Marshall was alleged to have accepted a limo ride to B&B's luxury suite at a Cowboys game, and his court clerk received an expensive watch as a graduation present from a B&B paralegal--admitting as much under oath. Eyebrows were also raised when that same paralegal, Suzanna Proctor, purchased the judge's sailboat (which had been on the market for a year) and allegedly had some private meetings with Marshall about the pending case.
Bickel declares that charges of influence-peddling were "much ado about nothing," that they were motivated by a vindictive lawyer, out to get Bickel over an old "fee dispute." And yet Judge Marshall found it necessary to recuse himself, and a visiting judge vacated the summary judgment. B&B is currently appealing that decision.
Although they never took on political cases of the magnitude of, say, a Matthew Harden, throughout their history, they remained politically active in Republican circles. (They were, however, big boosters of Democrat Ann Richards in her unsuccessful race against George W. Bush.) Bickel and Brewer would personally interview candidates, actively supporting several with $5,000 to $10,000 contributions, playing the role of kingmaker with considerable aplomb. One judge whom they opposed was Adolph Canales, who, in 1994, ran for re-election against ex-B&B partner Hal Marshall. Not only was Canales unpopular with the local bar, he had also ruled against B&B in an important case, and many believed the pair had fielded Hal Marshall in retaliation. "There was a perception out there that I was the Bickel & Brewer candidate," says Marshall. "But it was always my intention to disqualify myself from ruling on their cases." Marshall, however, never got the chance. He lost despite a $20,000 contribution from his old firm.
As the firm grew in power and prestige, it began to rethink its outsider image. Although it was too irreverent to become part of the establishment, there was a noticeable lessening of irascibility. Perhaps it was the enactment of bar association civility creeds that pledged lawyers to refrain from the kinds of bulldog practices that were blamed on attorneys like Bickel and Brewer. Perhaps it was corporate America putting a pencil to hardball litigation and figuring it just wasn't worth it.
Or perhaps it was indicative of a more mature Bill Brewer, who had himself become the target of a hardball divorce that has dragged on for more than two and a half years. Although Brewer refuses to comment about it, court records speak volumes--seven to be exact--each file bulging with documents that chart a divorce so acrimonious that no family court judge wanted to hear it. Several bailed out, possibly worried that an unfavorable ruling against Brewer could land them an opponent come election time. Brewer's estranged wife, April, is represented by pit bull Chris Weil, an obstreperous cuss whose legal pontifications can go on for hours at a blast. Brewer himself has retained four lawyers, the most notorious of whom is Frank Finn, the aging warrior of Thompson & Knight's litigation team, whose own senior partners pay him deference by referring to him as "Mr. Finn."
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.
Dr. Shirley Ison-Newsome, an African-American, had been chief of staff under Gonzalez's predecessor, Chad Woolery, sharing power with Gonzalez, who was then deputy superintendent. There was no love lost between the two women, and Gonzalez, after becoming superintendent, demoted Ison-Newsome twice, busting her down to high school principal last June and ignoring the protests of black leaders and trustees.
Within a week, new allegations arose against Ison-Newsome, suggesting she had deviated from district policy by authorizing that two $3,000 bathrooms be built in and around her offices. Dubbed "Pottygate" by the media, Gonzalez instituted disciplinary proceedings against Ison-Newsome, who later sued the district for defamation.
The Storefront agreed to represent Ison-Newsome pro bono--a mystery to many who believed that a woman making $96,000 a year could afford her own counsel. There seemed a decided political flavoring to the decision--Ison-Newsome was referred by another Storefront client, former Townview Magnet executive principal Ora Lee Watson, who, according to John Bickel, was referred by John Wiley Price.
In the process of evaluating her case, says Brewer, they "looked at whether there was statistical as well as anecdotal evidence that would support a consistent pattern of discrimination of black people at DISD." Given the large number of blacks at the highest levels of the administration, "it was a hard case to prove." But when Ison-Newsome convinced Harden to sign an affidavit on her behalf, that pattern, Brewer says, began to fall into place.
At 42, Harden is soft-spoken, respectful, almost boyishly innocent--only his closely cropped beard lends authority to his appearance. He is not a political man and recoils at the notion that he is any kind of symbol for African-Americans. When he came to Bill Brewer's home in late August, he told a chilling tale of how he himself had become the target of Yvonne Gonzalez's paranoia. What's more, he had tapes--lots of them--that he had recorded surreptitiously, and that helped substantiate much of what he said.
When Gonzalez was deputy superintendent and married, Harden claims, she made sexual advances toward him, though he refuses to say whether he ever succumbed to them. A source close to Harden, however, confirms that he has detailed two sexual encounters with Gonzalez, the first taking place in a DISD office, the second in a hotel room where he resisted her overtures and left. Gonzalez, through her attorney, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Despite this rejection, Harden continued his working relationship with Gonzalez. But his loyalty was put to the test last July 31, he says, when she asked him to lie for her during a news conference about her office renovations, which had cost $90,000--not the $12,000 she had told the media. Harden says he did as he was asked and said the superintendent had no knowledge of their cost. "After the press conference was over," Harden claims, "I went back to her office and told her I would never lie for her again."
Ten days later, he found a tracking device on his car. Someone had been tailing him for reasons that were not clear to him. The next day, he informed Gonzalez of what he had found. To Harden's surprise, she held a press conference that evening, claiming she had found evidence of at least five tracking devices on DISD cars, and a security firm she had hired believed her own office had been bugged. But no amount of subterfuge or surveillance would deter her from her crime-busting ways. By August, the DISD investigation had already netted 13 federal indictments, all involving personnel in Harden's management division.
By August 20, Harden says, word had gotten back to him. The superintendent wanted him gone. She was in possession of certain investigative reports, he was told, that held him accountable for many of the district's financial improprieties. Harden began carrying around a hidden recorder, secretly taping top administrators--Gonzalez and her special counsel Marcos Ronquillo, assistant superintendents Robert Payton and Robby Collins--about their intentions. Harden claims he had no intention of being forced out--which is what brought him to Bill Brewer's house in the first place.
Quietly, the Storefront filed its first Harden lawsuit, using it more as a tool to discover who placed the tracking device on Harden's car. When depositions revealed that the individual responsible for trailing Harden was Yvonne Gonzalez herself, Bickel & Brewer was ready to strike.
On September 8, Harden committed his first public act of defiance. He signed an affidavit supporting Shirley Ison-Newsome, swearing under oath that Gonzalez, in essence, manufactured the scandal over the Ison-Newsome restroom construction to avoid media scrutiny on her own office-renovation boondoggle.
On September 12, Bickel & Brewer struck again, this time suing Yvonne Gonzalez individually (coincidentally, in Judge Marshall's court) and alleging invasion of privacy, slander, and perhaps most damaging of all, sexual harassment. The media seized upon these pleadings, which read like a dime-store novel: "[Harden] was tired of having Gonzalez whisper lewd comments into his ear during important meetings." Harden, the hero of the tale, was painted in the most glowing of terms: "...there was no evidence that Harden was anything other than the best CFO DISD ever had." The villainess, on the other hand, was evil incarnate: "Unfortunately, the more Harden resisted, unbeknownst to Harden, the more obsessed Gonzalez became."
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.
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.
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.
That Bickel and Brewer can deliver minority voters to a particular candidate because of the Harden case seems downright speculative, and yet, in the mind of Bill Brewer, doctor of his own spin, this may not be too far-fetched. "For the first time in all the years I have been doing this [practicing law]," Brewer says, "elected officials are asking us, 'Who should I meet with in Oak Cliff? Who should I talk to in South Dallas?' That is huge in my mind."
And if current demographic trends in Dallas County hold true, if the minority population becomes the majority population within the next several years, few will be better positioned politically than Bickel and Brewer. Already a proven friend to high-profile African-Americans, the pair has, post-Harden, begun repairing its image with Hispanics. Despite the LULAC complaint, Bill Brewer says unabashedly, the Storefront now plans on assisting Latinos with their legal problems. "John and I have already had meetings with people in the Hispanic Chamber...We are talking to them about class actions, representing people in the Hispanic community against various economic practices of certain corporations."
Call it cultivating relationships or just business as usual--it's just one more way "the most aggressive, high-powered law firm in the world" is trying to make a difference. Whatever that difference may be.