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.

Jim Carrao stares through the windows of a ninth-story conference room into a thicket of fog that has swallowed the city's skyline and blotted out the view of the world outside. And he frowns.

Once again, it seems to him, forces beyond his control are engaged in a conspiracy. How they must snicker as they carry out in whispered tones a plot to leave him standing alone, again the victim of hollow loyalties, broken promises, and heartless strangers.

His sharp, piercing eyes blink behind silver-framed glasses. Averting his gaze from the gathered mist, he buttons his trench coat and tugs his Sherlock Holmes hat over his head. Before he leaves his attorney's office, having spent a late December afternoon fending off unwanted questions, Carrao wants an answer to a question of his own.

"How long must I be punished?"
The question is one that nobody, except possibly Carrao himself, can answer with any certainty. That's because Jim Carrao seems to define the concept of crime and punishment very broadly, using it to justify any one of the countless, often bizarre legal snares he's been entangled in for the better part of three decades.

In recent years, Carrao has worked diligently to build up his Dallas business called Lawmart. In many ways, he has put a history marred by civil sanctions, jail cells, and broken homes behind him to become a success within the local legal community.

Equipped with a supply of fax machines, which transmit solicitations to law firms and other local businesses 24 hours a day, Carrao peddles a range of freelance legal services more commonly provided by private investigators or in-house paralegals. They include everything from serving people with legal papers and doing background checks on individuals by digging into their pasts to interviewing witnesses for lawyers.

A legal assistant or paralegal, Carrao has never been a lawyer, though he wishes he were one. While he doesn't hold himself out to be an attorney--an activity the State Bar of Texas enjoined him from some 18 years ago--Carrao, for all practical purposes, acts like one. But unlike real lawyers, who make their living by representing clients, Carrao is his own best client and seems to have a taste for suing his customers, many of whom are lawyers.

Type his name into the computer down at Justice of the Peace Al Cercone's court or across the hallway in the District Clerk's office, and more than 100 lawsuits crowd the screen. Many of the cases feature Carrao, representing himself, suing attorneys who he claims didn't pay their bills.

What's remarkable about Carrao is not just the volume of cases he files, or that he sues the very people who are the source of his livelihood, but that this wannabe lawyer isn't altogether bad at what he does. In many cases, Carrao emerges victorious, and on more than one occasion, he has had defendant-attorneys brought to court in the company of the sheriff, their bank accounts garnisheed after they refused to respond to his claims.

Carrao's record for beating lawyers on their own turf could inspire cheers among the growing number of Americans who think lawyers are sub-human, but he doesn't limit his practice to attorneys alone. He also sues former employees, friends, and even his relatives, whom he has accused of depriving him of everything from their love and affection to trivial possessions, such as underwear, tubes of K-Y Jelly, and in one case, a frozen chicken.

Taken individually, few of these cases are especially fascinating. Together, though, they reveal a pattern of personal vindictiveness carried out through the court system by a man who seems well aware that he has a constitutional right to sue as many people as he chooses and that there are few judges who will stop him. The legal system has allowed him to flourish despite considerable evidence that he abuses it.

While Carrao happily uses the law--especially the pre-trial process of discovery--to question people's behavior and pry into their personal lives, he is offended by the notion that someone would take a peek into his own. The only reason they would do so, he insists, is because they intend to punish him for his past--which includes a prison sentence for arson.

Carrao may indeed soon be punished; to be more precise, his activities as a legal assistant may be curtailed.

Because he is a convicted felon, Dallas County civil district judges are for the second time deciding whether Carrao should be removed from the list of people they authorize to serve process. At the same time, state regulators are continuing to investigate complaints that Carrao is working as a private investigator without a license--an offense that, if proven, could land Carrao in jail again. In Austin, meanwhile, the State Bar is trying to figure out how Carrao became a member of its legal assistants division despite a rule that prevents felons from joining.

But the prospect of sanctions, or even a little jail time, is the sort of punishment that Carrao has faced in the past. Attacks from lawyers, threats from judges, countless appearances in court--these are just the cost of doing business. There is, however, one court in which Carrao's understanding of the law can't prevent the kind of harsh judgment he fears: the court of public opinion.

Collin County Justice of the Peace John Roller thumbs through the case styled Jim Carrao, d/b/a Lawmart vs. Amanda Dee Kelley and yells out to his assistants in an adjoining office, "Do you remember the chicken case?"

The sound of giggles fills the otherwise empty office. The assistants can't forget the chicken case and neither can Judge Roller, who has presided over this people's court for 36 years and has seen a lot of strange things. But a lawsuit fought over a frozen chicken?

"It was the most screwball case I ever saw," says Roller. Unlike his counterparts in Dallas County, Roller is proud to say he doesn't want Carrao near his courtroom.

"He's a nut, and I don't care if you print that," says Roller. "He's a jerk. He plays with the law. He acts like a lawyer, but he's not one."

The chicken case is one of the more comic examples of how Carrao uses the courts to exact punishment on people he believes have wronged him. When Amanda Kelley first started working as a secretary for Carrao in the summer of 1997, the job seemed like a good opportunity for her to gain experience as a paralegal.

While at Lawmart, Kelley says, she did computer work, served process, and ran errands at the courthouse. She also enrolled in the paralegal program at El Centro Community College and, because she was short on cash, Carrao offered to foot the bill. Soon, however, Kelley says, her boss began to make her feel extremely uncomfortable, suggesting she get an apartment closer to the office, and often inviting her to stay after hours to drink margaritas.

Kelley realized Carrao expected her to work nights, weekends, even through the lunch hour. When Kelley asked Carrao to let her break for lunch, his response, Kelley says, was that she eat at the office.

"So he brought this frozen chicken. He asked me to take it home and cook it and bring it back there. It was rotten when I brought it home, so I just threw it away," Kelley recalls, trying to suppress her laughter. "It was a big issue for him because he sued me for it."

In March 1998, some three months after Kelley quit, Carrao sued her in Roller's court demanding $662--reimbursement in part for the tuition, a pager, personal phone calls, a parking permit, and, of course, the frozen chicken.

Carrao resents categorizing this lawsuit as just a fight over a chicken. "She didn't have any money to pay for her tuition, and she wanted to know if I would pay it for her," he says. "I said I would if you're gonna be here for the rest of the semester. She said she was, and she left the next week. That's $265 that I felt she cheated me out of."

In June, a Collin County jury found in favor of Kelley and agreed that Carrao didn't deserve a dime. But compared with the others who have entered and exited Carrao's life, Kelley got off easy.

Reams of court records, which Carrao himself generated, as well as police reports and interviews with people who have met Carrao provide a striking, sometimes ominous portrait of a man who uses the court system to stalk people whose greatest crime is that they wanted him out of their lives. Those who have been hit the hardest by Carrao's legal pursuit are the people who were closest to him--family, friends, lovers.

Nowadays, Amanda Kelley says she is happy to be far away from Carrao.
"When I came in to quit he said, 'Who do you think you are? I've been your friend, your employer, your mentor. How can you do this to me?'" Kelley says. "If you try to disassociate yourself with him, [that's] when he starts becoming very controlling. I think he's one of these people that hates the world, and he needs to get back at everybody."

Jim Carrao pushes back from a large conference table in the Dallas law office of his attorney, Tom Mills, and clasps his hands behind his head. Ordinarily, the relaxed posture would reflect a feeling of comfort, but Carrao is clearly agitated.

The 60-year-old legal assistant keeps insisting that, as far as he knew, the purpose of this interview was for him to answer questions about the nearly seven dozen cases he's filed against his customers in Al Cercone's JP court. He wasn't expecting, nor is he willing, to answer many questions about his personal life.

Once again, James Vincent Carrao acts as if he's been betrayed. "How long is this gonna go on? I don't wanna sit here and talk to you, a stranger, about every aspect of my life," he says, his voice rising with his anger.

Unfortunately for Carrao, the laws that give him the right to sue people are the same laws that give everyone the right to examine, and even publicly discuss, the information contained in public records--no matter how personal that information might be. The public records that pertain to Carrao and date to the 1960s reflect a younger man who was just beginning to raise a family. He was also just beginning his never-ending tango with the law.

In 1966, when Carrao was 27, the Texas Department of Insurance licensed him to sell insurance. At the time, Carrao was married to his first wife, Georgie, and the couple's first of three sons was about a year old. But whatever stability Carrao had found was soon lost.

After five years of marriage, Georgie filed for divorce. In her petition to the court, Georgie said she was forced to leave Carrao because he had "commenced a course of unkind, harsh and cruel conduct" toward her. Carrao did not react well to his wife's decision to leave. According to a counselor's report contained in the divorce file, Georgie received "harassing" letters and phone calls from Carrao and, 10 days after she filed for divorce, he attempted suicide.

"Mr. Carrao appears to be having severe guilt feelings at this time and is extremely angry at his wife," the counselor reported. "...His primary motivation appeared to be his desire to reconcile with his wife."

In describing Carrao's "opportunistic type of personality," the counselor wrote that he was "manipulative and demanding and readily transferred his anger from his wife to the counselor...Both counselors felt that throughout our study Mr. Carrao's behavior was characterized by overaction and reflected considerable feelings of insecurity and distrust."

Georgie, who has since moved out of the state, did not respond to a request for an interview. Carrao ultimately abandoned his financial obligations to his three sons and continued to exhibit vindictiveness toward Georgie 14 years after their divorce.

Shortly before a court ordered Carrao to pay Georgie $10,000 for overdue child support in 1984, Carrao sued Georgie in Dallas County for $15 million. As part of his claim, Carrao said Georgie had "used her social position, business connections, and wealth to influence the said children, and has induced them to have no contact or relationship with their father."

"As a result of [Georgie's] conduct," he continued, his "relationship with his children has been ruined and his entire life has been disrupted and destroyed."

Carrao later dropped the suit, and Georgie successfully obtained the money she was owed, says her attorney Ralph Jones. He calls the lawsuit his "Highland Park pro bono case."

"It was so much fun going after that son of a bitch," Jones says. "He knows his way around the courthouse. He knows how to duck a judgment. There was a certain thrill to the case to get him."

Jones remembers the case fondly because it was the only time a witness, in this case Carrao, jumped off the stand and tried to attack him. "I'll never forget the bailiffs. They were up and between us and holding him back probably before I could react."

Although Carrao claimed that Georgie had turned his sons against him, they evidently placed the blame on him. In 1991, his three sons and ex-wife petitioned the court to change their names. As part of their pleadings, the sons, then adults, told the court that because Carrao had not met his "financial or other obligations," they no longer desired to "use or be known by his name of Carrao."

In 1971 Carrao opened an insurance company, Guardian General Insurance Agency, on McKinney Avenue. The business lasted until May 1977, when Carrao was the subject of a disciplinary action by the state's insurance commissioner. That same year, Carrao married his second wife, Susan.

In his 1977 order, Commissioner Joseph Hawkins found that Carrao had wrongfully pocketed more than $9,000 in unearned premiums and ordered him to repay the money or risk having his state licenses revoked. As part of his findings, Hawkins wrote that Carrao had "misappropriated" the money and in doing so had "demonstrated [a] lack of trustworthiness or competence to act as a licensed insurance agent."

Department spokesman Lee Jones says he could not determine whether any specific action was taken against Carrao's licenses, though department records confirm that Carrao hasn't held any insurance licenses in Texas since February 1978.

After his insurance business ended, so did Carrao's marriage to Susan. In December 1978, the childless couple separated and were later divorced. As things turned out, the divorce decree wasn't enough to prevent Carrao from waging a campaign of harassment against Susan that lasted more than a decade and landed Carrao in jail.

While the divorce was pending, Carrao vandalized Susan's property, according to court records and a series of complaints filed with the Dallas police. In court pleadings, Susan received a restraining order against Carrao after she accused him of pouring sugar in her gas tank and putting sand in her engine block.

Despite the restraining order, Carrao's antics continued.
After the divorce was final, Susan told police that Carrao had broken into her house and "burned the sofa with what appeared to be a cigarette." She also said Carrao had kicked in a door to her apartment when she was gone, slashed all her furniture cushions and clothing with a knife, and turned on her appliances and left them running.

In 1981 Carrao broke into her house again, prompting a Dallas County grand jury to indict Carrao on felony theft charges. In 1982, Carrao pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of theft and was placed on probation.

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."

Evidently, Carrao wasn't particularly concerned about being implicated in the incident. Shortly after the fire, he had the audacity to sue the homeowner in small-claims court, demanding that she repay his $475 security deposit.

But as the investigators dug deeper, the evidence began to point to Carrao. After discovering his true identity, they learned that "Carr" had taken out a personal-property policy worth $50,000 from a local insurance agency just 60 hours before the house burned.

Although his arson indictment didn't get any media attention in Dallas, Carrao, ironically was featured in a prominent Dallas Morning News story that named him "Dallas' human smoke detector" only days before the case went to trial.

While Carrao was free on bond, the News followed him around Dallas as he inspected various businesses and cited them for violating the city's new anti-smoking ordinance. As part of his crusade, Carrao also filed complaints against individuals whom he spied smoking in non-smoking areas. When they refused to give their names, he would follow them to their cars, record their license-plate numbers, and track them down using his investigative skills.

On February 25, 1987, a Comal County jury found Carrao guilty of arson, a second-degree felony, and later sentenced him to 10 years in prison. On December 18, 1989, Carrao was paroled, and he soon headed back to Dallas--his understanding of the law sharper, and judging from court cases he would soon file, his taste for revenge stronger than ever.

It had been more than a decade since Carrao's divorce from his second wife, Susan, was final, but in August 1990, he filed a bizarre civil suit, claiming their "common-law" marriage was still intact. He demanded that she appear in court so a judge could "declare" that the two of them were still one.

Not surprisingly, Susan was stunned by Carrao's attempt to re-enter her life and asked the court to sanction him for filing a "frivolous lawsuit" meant to "solely harass, annoy, and emotionally upset" her. Susan, who had since remarried and divorced, also told the court that in 1986 Carrao had intervened in that divorce case and had sent her discovery designed to harass her because he had "vowed revenge" on her.

Now she grew afraid for her safety and that of her children, claiming that if the court allowed Carrao to obtain information about her personal life, his pattern of harassment would begin again.

In an affidavit she filed in the case, Susan included a list of vandalism by Carrao that she had reported to the courts 10 years earlier. "I am scared to death of him and what he is capable of doing," she said. But the court ignored her request for sanctions and allowed Carrao to use the discovery process to pry into Susan's life for two years, until the case was ultimately dismissed.

As part of the discovery, Carrao asked for and got answers to questions about her medical history and personal acquaintances. Susan was also forced to admit or deny Carrao's contentions that, after their 1979 divorce, she had slept with him, wrote him love letters, and continued to exchange gifts with him.

The case is hauntingly similar to a case Carrao brought against a Denton County woman whom he met in 1992 after responding to a personal ad she placed in the Dallas Observer. At the time the woman was separated from her husband, but within a year decided to reconcile with him. Again, Carrao did not respond well to the news.

Before the woman dismissed her divorce case, Carrao intervened in a supposed attempt to regain a lengthy list of personal items he claimed were in her possession. That list included a dozen pair of underwear, several combs, a bottle of Plax, a Natalie Cole CD, and three tubes of K-Y Jelly.

As part of his claim, Carrao sent the woman exhaustive requests for admissions to redundant and invasive questions about a sexual relationship Carrao, the "the intervenor," claimed they had. He requested that she admit or deny that: "Intervenor gave you cunnilingus"; "you gave intervenor fellatio"; "you had rear-entry sexual intercourse"; "you purchased K-Y Jelly," and "on one or more occasions, intervenor climaxed inside of you."

Despite a ruling that the woman's gynecological records were not admissible in the case, Carrao obtained them and confronted her with them during a deposition. Denying she had a sexual relationship with Carrao, she counter-sued and asked the court for protection.

"The discovery which has been sought to date has little or nothing to do with whether [the woman] still has items of Carrao's personal property," her attorney argued. "Indeed, the record strongly suggests that Carrao's motivation in filing and pursuing this lawsuit is to seek revenge...This Court should not countenance this kind of conduct." Although the court did, for more than two years.

Meanwhile, the woman went to the Denton police department after Carrao allegedly threatened to kill her during a December 17, 1992 telephone call. According to police records, Carrao allegedly told her, "Let me enter you from behind, rear-entry; if you don't I'm going to kill you." Although the Denton County DA's office charged Carrao with a misdemeanor count of harassment, it dropped the case because the woman declined to cooperate with authorities.

In early 1994, a Denton County judge granted the woman's motion to quash Carrao's discovery and ordered him to pay $1,500 in court costs. The judge later dismissed Carrao's suit and sanctioned him because he failed to pay the court costs.

Today, Carrao vehemently denies the allegations that he threatened to kill the woman and, when asked to explain the purpose of his discovery in the case, he becomes evasive.

"What was the point of a lot of things that she did? Are we going to discuss the things she did?" he asks. "Can we move on to another case?"

Located within blocks of Carrao's West End-based Lawmart, the George Allen Courts Building is the place where Carrao continues to practice his own version of the law, at times seeking payback from the people he believes have done him wrong.

Since 1991, Carrao has filed more than 80 lawsuits in Justice of the Peace Al Cercone's court against attorneys and other customers who have hired Carrao to perform various investigative and paralegal services. Across the hallway, the public terminals at the District Clerk's office contain an additional 40 cases dating back to the 1960s that Carrao has brought, some of them appeals from Cercone's court.

To the courthouse employees who work here, Carrao is an all too familiar face--a regular who always seems to come around, cracking jokes about how yet another employee has up and quit. Carrao is also known as a guy who doesn't much care for attorneys, though he seems to enjoy acting like one.

"When attorneys don't pay their bills, he sues them," says one clerk, who speaks in whispered tones for fear that Carrao might be in earshot. "He hates attorneys. He thinks they're idiots. I don't know his motivation, but he thinks he's smarter than them."

Dallas attorney Jim Carroll is one attorney who Carrao claims is conspiring to put him out of business. It is an allegation Carroll doesn't bother denying. In fact, he's spent a year gathering information about Carrao on behalf of several clients whom Carrao has sued. Carroll likes to think of his willingness to share the information as "his good deed" for the year.

"If he is ever brought to justice, it will give me a certain satisfaction. He's obnoxious," Carroll says. "Someone looking at it objectively may think I have a crusade to get him, but something needs to be done."

Carroll, who practices primarily in the area of debt collection, is currently defending an Austin-based attorney whom Carrao sued in Cercone's court for unpaid bills, as well as a former employee, Jack Medford, whom Carrao accused of criminal theft after he quit Lawmart to accept a better job.

Carroll finds Carrao's tactics particularly offensive because he sues his customers for amounts so small that most people, attorneys included, can't afford to take the time off to argue about it--even if they don't believe they owe the money.

No matter the criticism leveled at Carrao, Judge Cercone says that for those who disregard his summons to appear, he has no problem issuing writs of attachment ordering the sheriff to escort them to court. Particularly attorneys. "It's unbelievable that an attorney would do that," Cercone says. "I see a lot of these attachments...once it gets that far, they all of a sudden realize how serious it is."

One example is the case of Rex Moxley, who, until recently, practiced law. In 1997, Carrao sued him for $200 in unpaid computer work. "I'll be the first to admit I was late on paying," says Moxley, who quit the law profession to become a financial planner. Although he complains that Carrao is a "bitter man," Moxley admits he didn't take his case seriously. "JP court is really no big deal."

For months, Moxley ignored the case until Cercone signed an order of attachment and had him brought to court. Cercone also allowed Carrao to garnishee his bank account. "At that point I wised up," Moxley says. "My money was frozen."

Carrao says the reason he sues anyone, including lawyers, is very elemental: He doesn't like getting stiffed. While he contends that his suits are standard in his business, there is plenty of evidence that he thoroughly enjoys playing lawyer. In a 1994 case he filed against a female attorney for unpaid bills, Carrao sent the lawyer 72 requests for admissions as part of his discovery process. In part, Carrao wanted her to admit to things like "You consider yourself a failure as an attorney."

Another attorney, who asked that her name not be published because "I don't want the guy in my face," says Carrao sued her for less than $100 without even bothering to let her know she had an unpaid balance. "Usually when there's a dispute, as a matter of professionalism, you work things out," says the attorney. "I got the distinct impression that he liked being able to sue lawyers."

The attorney had hired Carrao after she received a fax from him peddling his services. "The fax list indicated to me that he was working in a capacity for which I had hired private investigators in the past," the attorney says. "I figured I'd give the guy a try."

While Carrao does not call himself a private investigator, he appears to skirt around the edges of the state law that governs that profession. Under that law, convicted felons cannot obtain a private investigator's license, and working as a PI without a license is a misdemeanor. Lawmart's own Web site and brochures advertise its services to include accident investigations and interviewing witnesses--activities that the law contemplates fall within the purview of licensed private investigators. Yet the law seems vague and uncertain, and it's riddled with exceptions.

Ken Nicolas, the deputy director of the Texas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies, says his department has been receiving complaints about Carrao for years but has been unable to prove that he is working as a private investigator. Because his investigators are so backlogged with complaints, Nicolas says, they don't have the resources to conduct a full-scale investigation of Carrao's business.

Although the Dallas judges first gave Carrao the authority to serve process in 1990, his ability to do so has also been under considerable scrutiny.

In 1993, Judge Joe Brown ordered Carrao's authorization to be revoked because he had failed to inform the court of his arson conviction in his original application to serve process. Carrao appealed the ruling, and his application, accompanied by a letter of reference from attorney Tom Mills, was approved.

Now the courts are once again deciding whether Carrao should serve process. In February, Presiding Civil District Courts Judge David Godbey and Presiding Family District Courts Judge Dee Miller ordered all process servers to resubmit their applications. Under a new rule, anyone with a felony conviction will not be approved. Carrao has reapplied, but his application is still under consideration.

Attorney Tom Mills suspects that the order came in response to a specific complaint about Carrao--most likely a complaint from attorney Carroll. "The bottom line is," says Mills, "Is Jim Carrao trustworthy enough to walk up to you and hand you a piece of paper?"

That's a question the legal assistants' division of the State Bar of Texas is trying to answer.

Executive Director Norma Hackler confirms that Carrao is a member, despite a rule that bans convicted felons from joining and another that requires legal assistants to work under the direct supervision of a single attorney. In his promotional brochures, Carrao proudly lists his membership status in the legal assistants' division, along with his educational background.

Hackler offers little explanation for why Carrao's membership application was approved, saying she would have to investigate the matter before making any specific comment. However, because the division has no regulatory authority and exists primarily to support legal assistants, she says conducting background checks on members isn't a high priority.

"We usually go by the honor system," she says.

That the legal system would allow a courthouse bully like Jim Carrao to thrive speaks volumes about the system itself.

There are few restraints on pro se litigants who treat the law as their hobby, the courtroom as a chance to get even with those who trifle with them. The ethical code of conduct that applies to lawyers and provides the basis for disciplining them does not apply to Jim Carrao. He has no law license to lose. No legal reputation to ruin. Reluctant to slap him back, judges are more likely to allow him to plead ignorance and think twice about sanctioning him even for his most abusive behavior.

Unchecked by any court, disciplinary board, or lawyer, he can continue to ply his trade, availing himself of any vagueness in the law without quite violating it, bringing suits meant to intimidate and harass, and proving that a little bit of knowledge mixed with a lot of bitterness can be a dangerous thing.

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