Courthouse bully

Legal assistant Jim Carrao works the dark corners of the justice system. He serves papers, does background checks, files annoying cases--and knows just enough law to be dangerous.

Carrao claims the theft was not as bad as it sounds. "Husband and wife stuff, what can I say? I shouldn't have done it. She had taken a bunch of my personal belongings that were separate property, and I went over to get 'em, and I took a couple of other things I shouldn't have."

The "other things" Carrao stole amount to a two-page list of personal items including Susan's shoes, slips, underwear, bras, and panty hose, among other clothing and accessories, according to a Dallas police report about the incident.

While the domestic battled spilled into the criminal-justice system, the civil courts were tending to another complaint about Carrao. About a year after he was out of the insurance business, he started a nonprofit company called the Consumer Rights Council.

Using the alias Tony Angelo, Carrao offered to help victims of consumer fraud obtain settlements from car mechanics, insurance companies, TV repair shops, and other service-oriented businesses. Carrao somehow managed to get his business listed under the "helpful numbers" column in the blue pages of the Dallas phone book--right alongside the Better Business Bureau and the Food and Drug Administration.

Carrao can't recall how his name got listed in the blue pages, and he maintains that he never called himself nor acted like a lawyer. All he was trying to do, he says, was help people with minor disputes that didn't require the services of an attorney.

"It wasn't profitable. I did a lot of those cases free, particularly for elderly people and indigent people," he says. "There was absolutely nothing devious or sneaky or illegal, as far as I'm concerned, about what I was doing."

That is not, however, the conclusion that the State Bar's Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law reached when it successfully sued Carrao in 1980 for practicing law without a license.

As part of the operation, Carrao's customers filled out a standard complaint form and paid Carrao a minimum $15 nonrefundable fee. In exchange, Carrao would give legal opinions and in some cases call up the offending business and bully them into making reparations. If successful, Carrao charged an 18 percent commission.

The Committee not only found that Carrao, having never held a law license, harmed his customers because he was untrained in the law, but that he also posed a danger because he had a habit of suing them for unpaid "fees." In its original petition, the Committee argued that Carrao's tactics were an abuse of the "discovery" process.

When suing its customers, claimed the committee, the "Consumer Rights Council, Inc. has no licensed counsel of record, but instead appears pro se, through Mr. Carrao. Such cases are usually prosecuted by means of lengthy and burdensome 'form' interrogatories which are served upon various defendants by Mr. Carrao." The suits subject these customers to "burdensome 'harassing' tactics by an individual Carrao, who is not subject to effective discipline or control by the bench or bar because he is not a licensed attorney."

Attorney Tom Mills, who represented Carrao in the case on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that what Carrao was doing paved the way for the process of mediation that courts now favor. "And, incidentally, to be a mediator you don't have to be a lawyer," Mills says.

After a jury trial, the court permanently barred Carrao from practicing law without a license or dispensing his legal opinion to others, whether inside the courtroom or out. Despite a lengthy list of specific activities Carrao was told to cease, the injunction did not prevent Carrao from representing himself in future lawsuits.

In other words, there is nothing stopping Carrao from suing as many people as he pleases.

One item on Carrao's resume that he is delighted to discuss is his education. In 1982, at age 44, Carrao returned to Texas A&M in College Station to complete his bachelor's degree in political science, a course of study he began in 1956 but put on hold after a year. After A&M, in the fall of 1984, Carrao attended Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos and received a certificate in paralegal studies.

Carrao, who considers himself an Aggie to the core, remembers the day he walked through the A&M graduation line. "I cried," Carrao says. "I did. I cried. I'll never forget it. I sat there and cried--bawled."

Sadly, Carrao's academic achievements were soon diminished.
In early July 1985, Carrao rented a one-story frame house in New Braunfels, telling the landlady that his name was Jim Carr, and that he was a self-employed paralegal who was planning to move to town. Three weeks later, on July 21, 1985, the New Braunfels Fire Department put out a fire that engulfed the home.

Once the smoke cleared, it didn't take investigators long to rule that the cause of the fire was arson. It had started at the right front burner of the kitchen stove--its knob set on high. Several large ashes that appeared to be newspapers rested on the stove, alongside six empty Velveeta cheese boxes. Investigators also noticed the absence of common personal effects, like jewelry and photographs.

They also took note of "Jim Carr's" mood.
"Mr. Carr arrived on the scene at approximately 10:00 a.m. After surveying the residence for a few minutes, Mr. Carr left the area," the investigators reported. "Mr. Carr did not appear distraught at all; in fact his attitude was somewhat merry in light of the fact that his personal items had been destroyed."

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