Hold That Five Mil'

City Hall settles big suits with your tax money

Hey, when you saw the story in The Dallas Morning News last week about how the city council is going to approve a $5 to $6 million settlement with half a dozen demoted police officials, did you happen to wonder what was going on? I know I did.

Typical day. Open your Morning News. Read a big story. Sip your coffee. Think to yourself, "Wow, that was a big story. It had a big headline. Something must be going on. I wonder if we'll ever find out what."

I'm sure people felt like this on a lot of mornings in the old Soviet Union, perusing their Pravda over a beaker of vodka.

Why, all of a sudden, would the city attorney be telling the council it needs to pony up this huge settlement, which sounds more like it's going to be $7 to $9 million by the time it's done? That's almost half the entire projected budget deficit for the city this year.

And why is the judge ordering the city's lawyers to reveal their confidential attorney-client communications with Dallas Police Chief Terrell Bolton in the case? I spent a lot of time on the phone last week trying to get people to answer that one for me.

Nobody would talk. Much.

But it comes down to this: The primary reason a judge is going to order your lawyer to reveal his privileged advice to you is if the judge suspects that you and/or the lawyer may have perpetrated some kind of criminal fraud on the court. Here, then, is a possibility too obvious to ignore: The city attorney may be telling the council members they need to hurry up and slap some big, big money on these plaintiffs because, if they don't, the lawsuit will reveal major wrongdoing on the city's part.

Like fibs. Under oath. Maybe.

But how is it even possible to have committed a screw-up so bad that it's worth $9 million to make it go away? Well, I think it's way possible, but that's because of how I think. I write about the city's smaller screwups all the time. The only difference I see here is that these are big-dog plaintiffs with big-dog lawyers.

Example: I have written a lot in the past about Donato Garcia, a 45-year-old Mexican immigrant construction worker arrested by police in April of last year for "failure to identify"--that is, failing to come up with his driver's license or other form of identification quickly enough to satisfy a Dallas police officer who wanted to see it.

It's illegal to arrest people for failure to i.d. Always has been. People in this country are not required to carry identity papers.

Garcia was much luckier than most defendants of modest means: He attracted the attention of a lawyer, David Davis, who was offended by what had happened and was willing to fight without demanding the $10,000 to $20,000 retainer you and I would have to pay up-front to get this kind of representation.

Davis steered his client to the Civilian/Police Review Board, where he won a clear vindication. The board said the cop in question had done wrong.

Then Davis took Garcia to state court, where a jury found him not guilty of a resisting-arrest charge the police had piled on.

Only one thing was left--the original charge of failure to i.d.

But when Davis took his client to the municipal court of Judge Jay Robinson on the failure to i.d. charge, he was amazed to learn that Garcia had already been convicted, without a trial, without Garcia's knowledge and without Davis' knowledge. Another lawyer, whom Garcia did not even know, had come to Robinson in the company of a couple of assistant city attorneys and had entered a guilty plea for Garcia behind his back.

When Davis went to Judge Robinson and pointed out what had happened, Robinson responded with a five-page legal opinion, all of which came to one point: The deadline for asking a judge to overturn his own verdict is 10 days. Davis came to him 48 days after the verdict.

Tough toenails. The verdict stands.

You wonder what's going on, right? Why on earth would they find the guy guilty behind his back and then refuse to set it aside when they found out what had happened?

Good question.

Walter A. Knowles, the attorney who entered the guilty plea for Garcia, basically says he was duped into doing the plea for Garcia by the city attorney. Knowles had signed for Garcia's bond the night Garcia was arrested. Garcia and his family say they had never heard of Knowles. They went to a bond company to get Garcia out. Knowles' name was never mentioned. But Knowles signed on Garcia's bond.

Knowles, you see, is part of the machinery the Dallas municipal court system uses to skirt state law on bonding requirements and to keep the wheels of justice greased. Without going into every nut and bolt, the deal is that bonding companies only have a certain total amount they can take on when they are guaranteeing people's bonds to get them out of jail. But lawyers can simply sign to get somebody out, without any limit.

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