By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Before going to Mexico, however, McBride telephoned Halpin and told him about CompUSA's largest shareholder. "Nobody buys my company without talking to me," McBride remembers Halpin responded.
After making the arrangements with Elias, the Dallas partners were eager to show the CompUSA executives what they had set up and to introduce the son-in-law to the company. Within less than a week, McBride and Cunningham scheduled Halpin and other CompUSA executives to meet Slim and his son-in-law.
Halpin accepted McBride's offer to make the arrangements. But the CompUSA CEO, who had hired an investment bank to look for potential buyout candidates for the company, also initiated his own, separate relationship with Slim. Before going to Mexico, Halpin telephoned Slim and asked about the meeting that the Dallas partners had scheduled. "Would that be a good time to come down and meet you personally and talk to you about what CompUSA is doing and what this company that [you] bought 15 percent of does?" Halpin asked.
At Slim's office in Mexico City, Cunningham was awestruck. The edifice seemed more like a bunker than a place of business. Slim's quarters had no windows. Armed guards stood at the doorway.
Moments before Halpin and the Dallas partners entered Slim's well-secured chambers on September 14, 1999, the CompUSA CEO warned McBride and Cunningham that they may not get to participate fully. "I took [the partners] aside and said, 'I've never met Mr. Slim. I don't know what's going to be discussed. He's our largest shareholder. There may be a time that comes up where something is to be discussed of a confidential nature. If that comes up, I may have to ask you to leave,'" Halpin testified.
That little chat stung, Cunningham told the jury. "I felt damaged by that...that just immediately reduced us in stature at that meeting," he said.
What Halpin said after the meeting ended was the subject of much controversy at trial.
McBride and Cunningham both testified that he said, "I've got mine. I hope you get yours."
Cunningham said, "I was stunned by that. I thought it was so cold and harsh."
But Halpin testified that he never uttered that statement. Instead, he said McBride came into his office after a subsequent meeting with Elias in Dallas and said that he wanted to build a personal-computer factory in Mexico "I said, Lawrence, you don't have the ability...you don't know anything about it. Just do your franchise in Mexico. And he said, 'Jim I don't how many more years you are going to work, but here is what I know. OK. You got yours, I need to get mine.' And at that point, I just excused him from the meeting," Halpin told the jury.
Controversy also surrounds the conversation that Halpin shared with McBride and Cunningham at a dinner in Mexico City that evening after the first face-to-face meeting between the CompUSA CEO and Slim.
"'You guys ought to be thinking about an exit strategy,'" Cunningham testified the CompUSA CEO said. "I wasn't really sure what that was...but as I had time to reflect on it, it became clear that what he meant was, you guys are in the middle, you are in the way, you need to get out of the way." Cunningham remembered Halpin said something about offering him and McBride $5 million to give up their rights. "This business opportunity was significantly worth more than, a lot more than $5 million," Cunningham told jurors.
In an interview after the trial, Cunningham said he believes that Slim could have come up with some number that would have satisfied the partners. But the Mexican financier never tried before the lawsuit and never came close to the plaintiffs' expectations for a settlement sum once the suit was filed.
On September 22, 1999, Elias flew to Dallas to look over CompUSA facilities. Cunningham and McBride, who had invited the son-in-law to Texas and were still putting the finishing touches on their deal with Slim's companies, picked him up at the airport and took him to their office in Addison. "It was a very empty place," Elias testified. "There was no people there, only us. It was business hours. They told me they had a company, so I thought I was going to some offices that were running like a normal office, and I even thought they rent that place only for the meeting."
That comment didn't sit well with everyone on the jury. "A lot of people don't have big offices when they are starting out," says the juror McGhee.
During Elias' two-day Dallas visit, the COC partners were at his side almost constantly, but at trial Werbner made sure to dissect what happened for the few moments they weren't. Halpin and Elias rode alone in Halpin's two-seater Mercedes when they drove from CompUSA's North Dallas headquarters to the company's Fort Worth call center. With this, Werbner hit pay dirt--what jury members would later say seemed like evidence of Halpin's backstabbing of McBride.
In the car, Halpin said, "Mr. Arturo asked me, you know, given the fact that Mr. McBride has no experience in retail and no experience in franchise and no experience in computers, why did you give him the opportunity to come to Mexico?