Raising a stink

Does open government mean it's really open to everyone, even people like Phil Thomas?

Phil Thomas is undeniably obnoxious and, to be blunt, weird. He speaks--loudly--of being a "commando" for truth, democracy, and open government. That much was evident during a February 8 court hearing, at which Thomas repeatedly refused to lower his voice and extra sheriff's deputies were summoned to state District Judge David Cave's courtroom in case Thomas' behavior turned violent.

Despite Cave's threats to send Thomas to jail--for a second time in two weeks--for contempt of court, Thomas lost control each time Dallas County Community College District lawyer Tom Brandt argued that he should be barred from contacting district employees or setting foot on any of its campuses because employees there are terrified of Thomas.

"All that's a crock of horse manure," Thomas thundered back at Brandt. "I object to this crapola that he keeps trying to bring in here."

Thomas, according to a flood of faxes he has sent the district, believes its evil, CIA-conspiring Chancellor William Wenrich is the embodiment of government waste who invests in boondoggle projects and may have associated with alien life forms.

Until October 30, when Thomas was placed under a temporary restraining order, he had been sending district officials hundreds of faxed requests for public records under the Texas Public Information Act in an attempt to prove his point. With every record Thomas reviewed, the more convinced of his theory he became and the more requests for public records he made--an obsession that grew into a daily habit that district officials say consumed their employees' time and patience.

This week, college district lawyers were in court as part of their unprecedented effort to make the temporary order permanent. They say that Thomas is making too many requests and that his only motivation is harassment. He is violating the spirit of the open-records law, they argue, and should lose his right to use it.

If the district succeeds, Thomas would become the first Texan ever to be enjoined from using the state law that guarantees all persons the right to access public records. Although district officials say they are only seeking protection from a volatile enemy, they could wind up drilling a hole through the center of the Texas Public Information Act and give government agencies a new power to withhold public records from all Texans.

Thomas has found only one ally in his fight--former Dallas Independent School District board member Don Venable. On February 1, Venable, who is not a lawyer, asked the courts for permission to intervene in the case as a member of the public, arguing that college officials are picking on a "wounded animal" and that their attempts to silence Thomas are illegal.

Thomas is aware that the district's strategy is no simple matter under the law. In a letter dated October 27 and addressed to someone at the college district named Jerry, Thomas presented his best defense in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity.

"Now, whether you like it or whether you lump it, The Texas Law says I have a right to ask these questions. And I have a right to the answers. For God's sake, Jerry, an informed public is at the very heart of Democracy, man. That's why the Texas Legislature passed the law in the first place. There is nothing personal here. I see something that does not make sense (paying for something DCCCD didn't receive) and as a good little citizen I question it. And then what happens. I GET SHIT ON! RESULT--I GET PISSED!" Thomas wrote. "Jerry, The LAW is the LAW is the LAW is the LAW! Wenrich should obey the LAW--or go to Jail. (and the Trustees, too) (and you and me, also)."

To date, Thomas is the only person in this case who has gone to jail. On January 11, Judge Cave found Thomas in contempt of court for shouting and had the 63-year-old retired engineer hauled off to the clink. The way things are going, Thomas will be back there soon. The question is, If Thomas can be silenced, who will be next?

If anyone could make a clear case for burdensome behavior by pursuing public records, it is Phil Thomas, a.k.a. the Stink Bomber.

Thomas was the subject of a story in the Dallas Observer in September 1996. At the time, Thomas was obsessed with a well-intentioned but misguided plan to help "ghetto kids" start their own business through a scholarship program he wanted to create at DISD.

Back then, Thomas aimed the majority of his "fax missiles" at DISD officials, who complained that he was forcing employees there to waste countless hours responding to his voluminous and often, according to them, frivolous requests for information. Thomas also sent faxes to various other agencies, including the Black Chamber of Commerce, on which he once threatened to drop an "atomic bomb" and wound up getting charged with a misdemeanor charge of making a terroristic threat.

Some days, Thomas truly can't help the way he acts, which at times is like a 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound 4-year-old who resorts to tantrums when things don't go his way. As he has explained to the court, Thomas suffers from severe depression and has recently spent 17 months in and out of treatment centers in an attempt to control his mental illness. Thomas realizes that his disability makes him difficult to deal with at times, but he maintains that the college district's allegations are false.

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