Mea Exculpa

City Hall's only rule in the Bolton mess is "Not me!"

Already this year, even before it hit us with the big budget deficit, Dallas City Hall was telling the taxpayers about all the things the city couldn't afford to do anymore. And guess what?

In the middle of all this, we have to pay $4.6 to $10 million in a legal settlement to a bunch of demoted Dallas police executives because somebody demoted them the wrong way.

What's going on at City Hall right now, in the meantime, is the most absurd, undignified, unscrupulous fandango of guilt-dodging I've ever seen in my life. But the boss, the leader, the head man, the guy who is responsible at the end of the day is still Mayor Ron Kirk.

Chief Bolton may need a good lawyer to represent him in his dealings with his lawyers. (The lawyers already have lawyers.)
Peter Calvin
Chief Bolton may need a good lawyer to represent him in his dealings with his lawyers. (The lawyers already have lawyers.)

This is his fault.

In late 1999, new Dallas police Chief Terrell Bolton shook up the top command staff of the department with a flurry of drastic demotions. These were in-your-face, outta-here, no hearing, no reasons, no due process butt-kickings.

Almost all of the demoted top cops sued, arguing that they had a so-called "property right" in their jobs. It's a legal term. You and I know that in Texas, employment is "at-will," meaning your boss can fire you whenever he wants, no questions answered. But if your boss gives you a contract or publishes an official policy giving you a "property right" to your job, then he can only fire or demote you "for cause."

So they all sued. Their lawyers all said they had a property right. And for more than a year, Dallas City Attorney Madeleine Johnson went to secret executive-session meetings with the city council and said no way. No property right. Never happens. Forget it. Not for city employees.

So guess what does happen. Last April, Johnson hires a new lawyer. The new hire goes to a City of Dallas Human Resources Department orientation session. During the session, the human resources staff plops a ring binder full of stuff in front of the new hire, and in great big letters, the first heading says, "City of Dallas, Policy Regarding Property Rights."

Next page: "Upon completion of the probationary period, an employee is said to have a 'property right' to their position. This means that the city cannot remove you from a position without due process."

By law, this brochure had to be handed over to the lawyers for the demoted cops. They were grateful, but they felt they already had lots of ammo, including the city charter itself. I have a copy of that, too, and in Chapter 16, sections 10 and 11, it spells out that city employees, whether they are civil service or not, go through a probationary period, after which they are entitled to "due process" if they are terminated or demoted.

Let's skip to another major question here. Before he carried out these demotions, Bolton and his top people spent hours upon hours talking it over with the city attorney's staff and with a private lawyer, Marcos Ronquillo, whom the city attorney had hired to help with the process.

Whether you like Terrell Bolton or not, you have to ask yourself this question: Did both of those lawyers say, "No, Terrell, you can't just dump them. They have a property right. It'll be a big screwup. They'll sue, and we'll lose. Better not do it that way." And then Bolton defied them and did it anyway?

Doesn't sound like it. It sounds as if Johnson didn't find out about the property-right business until last April when it fell in her lap by surprise. She's on vacation now, so I couldn't ask her the obvious question: Why does a city attorney have surprises like this?

Let's skip ahead a few pages again, this time to "attorney-client privilege": That's the rule that what is said between a lawyer and a client is secret. I contributed to some misunderstanding on this issue in my last column, "Hold That Five Mil'" (June 28). I offered my explanation of it after discussing it with several lawyers, so I would like to claim that I did it "on advice of counsel," but that might be a little pushy. I think the legal principle actually involved is that I got it wrong "on account of not being smart enough."

The judge in one of the demoted cop cases had ordered Johnson and Ronquillo to testify about what they had advised Bolton. I said the only reason a judge would order lawyers to violate attorney-client privilege was that the judge thought either the lawyers or the client had lied to him.

Not necessarily. In this case, the person who blew away the attorney-client privilege was Bolton, because he testified that he did what he did because his lawyers told him to. If you give that as your defense--the lawyer made me do it--then you can't follow up by saying, "But you can't find out about that for sure, judge, because of attorney-client privilege." The legal principle involved this time is: The law is not that dumb. If you use "advice of counsel" as your excuse, then there is no more attorney-client privilege.

Here is where we get to some of the more exquisite movements in the Fandango of Blame. Think of guitars, castanets and clicking heels. Johnson hasn't testified yet, because she's on vacation. But Ronquillo has, and I have his deposition.

When he was deposed two weeks ago, Ronquillo's own lawyer made a point of getting Ronquillo, her client, to say on the record that he had never officially been asked whether Bolton's plan was legal.

"No, ma'am. I was never asked to render research or give an opinion or a second opinion or anything of that nature..." Ronquillo testified.

So later on, Martha Hardwick, the lawyer for several of the demoted cops, says she understands that Ronquillo was saying he never rendered a formal written opinion on the legality of Bolton's plan, but she wonders if Ronquillo ever discussed it with Bolton at all.

Ronquillo answers: "We had--we had discussions, very informal, you know, conversation or discussions in terms of whether there was a problem or an issue, and I told him there was no problem or no issue with respect to implementing the plan."

Now, I happen to have a copy of Mr. Ronquillo's bill to the city--the bill you are paying for with your taxes--and I thought I might share with you some detail on the chats that he had with the chief in the days before Bolton did his big festival of demotions.

On October 26, 1999, Ronquillo prepared himself for a meeting with the city attorney, followed up by calling various police department officials, and then had a long meeting with the chief. That took him just under five hours, and it cost you $1,225.

That same afternoon, he had another meeting with police department officials that lasted under four hours. You paid him $950 for that one. Over the next few days, he talked on the phone a lot and met with people, for which you paid about $2,355.

The day before the demotions, some folks called him from City Hall. $180. Then, the day of the demotions, he came over and attended a news conference. You paid him $337.50 for that.

In the months ahead, the cash register kept ringing. I don't have a total yet, but you can see the rate at which it adds up.

I called Ronquillo's office several times over two days and left detailed voice-mail messages about what I was going to write. He did not return my calls.

The point we're supposed to get, I think, is that Ronquillo had only "very informal" discussions with the chief on the legality of the demotions, but he never gave him a formal opinion; so, naturally, he, Ronquillo, would not be formally to blame for anything the chief did.

If Tonto had thought like this, the Lone Ranger would have been barbecue in the first episode. (Tonto: "I may have been of the opinion, very very informally, that certain unknown persons appeared to be sneaking up behind him, but I never formally provided him with that information as an official advisory. Now, if you don't mind, I need to lie down on my back and catch my breath.")

Several months ago in an executive session, a few city council members began making pointed demands on Bolton. I'm paraphrasing, but the questions were along the line of, "Who told you that you could do this this way? When? What did they say?"

Mayor Kirk jumped down their throats. He said it was "city policy" that council members are not allowed to berate or interrogate staff members. I called Kirk's office and asked if he really thought this was city policy, that an elected representative of the taxpayers is not allowed to ask a damned paid staffer to explain what has turned into a $5 to $10 million blowout.

Kirk's representative called me back and said that the mayor never responds to questions about executive sessions, but the mayor wanted to refer me to the city's "Code of Conduct," Chapter 3, Section 3.1, paragraph C: "City council members shall not berate or admonish staff members."

Look, Kirk wants to run for the U.S. Senate. All he wants is no bad news. He doesn't care about your $5 million. He only cares about his own PR.

Can you believe we've got $5 million on the line, and he tells the council members they are not allowed to question their own employees?

By the way, I have a very strict policy that public officials are not allowed to berate or admonish me, so any officials who may be thinking along that line need to stuff it.

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