By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The whole sordid story began with a pile of concrete and a malfunctioning Bobcat.
On a hot, sticky Monday in mid-August 2006, crews in downtown Dallas were hard at work renovating The Merc—the distinctive World War II-era bank tower known for its clock and spire. Mid-redo, the historic building resembled a massive beehive, its 31 floors teeming with equipment, wreckage and workers. As one of the men used a Bobcat to clear debris on the 19th floor, he accidentally struck a beam. The metal gave way, pierced the wall and sent a heap of concrete fragments plunging to the ground outside.
Nineteen floors below on Commerce Street, Edgar Omar Navarro sat in the cab of an 18-wheeler waiting to haul waste from the job site. A 34-year-old from Nuevo Leon, Mexico, Navarro had come to the States in search of decent wages. As he sat in the 100-degree heat waiting to load the truck, the shower of rubble crashed down onto the cab and crushed him. He died instantly. In seconds, a woman was left without a partner, eight children were left fatherless, and the entire family was deprived not only of Navarro himself but also of his $35,000 annual salary. In the grief-blurred weeks that followed, his relatives arranged to transfer his body back to Mexico for burial and held a somber memorial service. Yet as the machinery of Navarro's life ground to a halt, the legal apparatus triggered by his death was only just awakening.
2777 Stemmons Freeway
Dallas, TX 75258
Region: West Dallas
Three years later, the job site at 1800 Commerce St. is long clean, the Merc transformed into luxury apartments and glitzy boutiques. After a lengthy and complex wrongful death lawsuit, Maria Puente, Navarro's live-in partner of 12 years and the mother of four of his children, agreed to a $5 million settlement from the companies involved in the accident and returned to Mexico. But at the Dallas County Courthouse, the legal drama dragged on through the first half of 2009. A sticky Gordian knot of a case, Maria Alicia Puente vs. Cleveland Wrecking Company rolled through the legal community picking up more and more lawyers, pitting old rivals against one another and sparking explosive claims of mob-style assaults and witness intimidation, as well as allegations of corruption and kickbacks at Dallas' Mexican Consulate.
Maria Puente hired the law offices of Pablo Alvarado following Navarro's death, then fired them two months later and retained personal injury attorney, Latino activist and former state Representative Domingo Garcia to pursue the wrongful death action. In 2008, Garcia settled the case for $5 million, $2 million of which would go to him under the terms of his contingency fee contract. Alvarado then sued Garcia and Puente, claiming he was owed part of the settlement because Garcia had interfered with his contractual relationship with Puente and Puente had breached the contract. Alvarado and Garcia, both of whom have been active in Democratic politics and once shared an office, traded barbs for months before settling their dispute on the eve of the June trial. Yet Rowlett lawyer Robert Lyon, whom Alvarado had contracted as co-counsel in the wrongful death action, refused to settle, paving the way for a two-week bench trial that dredged up fraud allegations and thorny legal issues from the settled wrongful death case and prompted Dallas County District Judge Bruce Priddy to disparagingly dub the proceedings a "rather messy case." At one point, the judge declared in court, "This case troubles me in ways you can't understand. There's all sorts of things that have gone on that trouble me."
Among those things was the fact that Puente had already been married in Mexico as a teen, which meant her standing as Navarro's wife depended on the annulment of her first marriage. The annulment was supposedly forthcoming through a lawyer in Monterrey, but it turns out that the lawyer—a babyfaced 25-year-old named Jorge Dagoberto Luna—would claim that Garcia had tricked him into signing an affidavit that falsely confirmed the annulment of Puente's prior marriage, suggesting that the basis for her $5 million settlement was fraudulent. Luna would also claim that before coming to Dallas to testify against Garcia, he had been threatened by street toughs in Monterrey who stole his wallet and warned him darkly that "this is just a taste of what can happen if you if you get into it with Domingo Garcia."
Garcia dismisses these allegations as preposterous.
The rivalry between Garcia and Alvarado seems to stem from a longstanding tug-of-war over cases, money and influence in the Latino community. At the center of it all sits the Mexican Consulate, a branch office of the Mexican Embassy that issues visas and passports and offers legal help to Mexican nationals in the area. Alvarado says he's been a consulting attorney for the consulate for some 20 years, providing translation services and advice on various aspects of Texas law, including worker's compensation and immigration issues. Since most Mexican citizens who go to the consulate for legal help are poor workers with problems involving immigration documents, minor crimes or domestic disputes, the vast majority of cases that originate there are taken by attorneys for free. The lucrative cases are the ones like Puente's that involve wrongful death and personal injury allegations, fairly common among the large pool of Mexican immigrants doing dangerous, physically intensive jobs. According to the consulate, the offices get around two work site injury complaints each month and several wrongful death cases each year. In the more complicated cases, staff lawyers at the consulate reach out to local "consulting" attorneys for help, and in some cases, refer people to them.
Garcia and Puente allege that Alvarado and his assistant, Alvino Guajardo, are guilty of barratry—illegally soliciting clients—and receive an unfair advantage at representing consulate clients. Then, Garcia claims, the attorneys either refer the cases to other lawyers for a fee or allow them to languish unattended. Alvarado, Guajardo and consular employees deny those claims. They point out that Garcia wants referrals from the consulate, which refuses to give them to him because the State Bar sanctioned Garcia in 2005 for failing to file a personal injury lawsuit before the statute of limitations ran out and failing to communicate with his client.
At one point, the June trial in the Puente fee dispute case devolved into a fifth-grade-level he-started-it-no-he-did spat, with Garcia accusing Guajardo of illegally soliciting Puente at the consulate when she wasn't even looking for a lawyer and he hadn't even passed the bar exam, and Lyon complaining that Garcia was the unethical one because he offered Puente money to ditch her original lawyers and hire him, then employed unethical means to secure a multimillion-dollar settlement (Guajardo denies the former, while Garcia denies the latter).
Heightening the drama even further was Larry Friedman, the aggressive, bombastic litigator hired by Garcia to represent him. Friedman has been front and center in such public legal spectacles as the 2000 Mark Cuban/Yahoo lawsuit and the recent securities case against embattled Texas billionaire financier Allen Stanford. Meanwhile, representing Alvarado was an old Friedman rival—attorney and former Judge Robert Jenevein. The two clashed nearly a decade ago during the course of the Cuban lawsuit. Friedman, who's prone to what he calls "aggressive lawyering," created a salacious sideshow in the Yahoo case, producing shocking accusations that Jenevein's wife, an attorney, had doled out sexual favors to a judge in exchange for favorable rulings. Jenevein, who recused himself from that case, held a press conference in his courtroom to condemn Friedman and was later censured by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for doing so. Jenevein appealed the censure, part of which was reversed.
Friedman again has created a sideshow, Jenevein suggests, filing a separate class action in May against Alvarado and Guajardo on behalf of plaintiffs, several of them former Garcia clients, who allege that "Alvarado provides kickbacks, cash payments and favors" in return for being "the exclusive referral attorney for all the potentially lucrative personal injury cases from the families of the victims that come to the consulate for help." With his trademark dramatic flourish, Friedman claimed in the pleadings that, "When you step into the consulate you step into a lawless world where rules do not exist, where corruption, ethical violations, bribery and kickbacks reign supreme."
Alvarado, as well as Consul General Enrique Hubbard Urrea, dismiss the charges as "false" and "groundless," a sour-grapes attempt by Garcia to punish Alvarado and pressure the consulate to refer cases to him.
Though the burgeoning legal miasma has drawn attention to a seemingly chaotic and possibly unfair case referral system at the Mexican Consulate, many within the Latino community consider the legal battle to be a purely personal clash with Pablo Alvarado and Alvino Guajardo on one side and Domingo Garcia on the other. Says Republican Latino activist Gehrig Saldana: "People are saying it looks like they're both trying to destroy each other."
The day after Edgar Omar Navarro was crushed to death at the Merc job site, Maria Puente went to the Mexican Consulate offices off Stemmons Freeway to arrange for the transfer of Navarro's body to Mexico. According to court records, Consul Eduardo Rea—then consul for the protection department, which deals with such legal issues as repatriating cadavers and providing legal support in cases of crimes, work site injury or labor disputes—introduced her to Alvino Guajardo. The manner of their meeting would become a point of bitter debate in the litigation to come. She maintains her sole intention was to get her husband's body back to Mexico and that consulate staffers told her—falsely—that she needed an outside lawyer to do so, while Rea testified that she inquired about an attorney and he recommended she talk to Guajardo, who says he was there that day doing a translation. Either way, Guajardo met with Puente and had a legal contract from Alvarado's office faxed to the consulate for her to sign. Alvarado later had her sign another contract on which Robert Lyon was listed as co-counsel. According to court records, Alvarado has often contracted other attorneys—in many cases Lyon—as co-counsel, or referred cases to them altogether for a fee. Puente would testify at the June trial that she didn't even know Lyon had been retained to represent her until after she decided to terminate Alvarado.
According to her testimony, Puente found out that her lawyers were representing other Navarro family members—including Navarro's mother and the mother of other children Navarro fathered—and began to grow uneasy about being represented by Alvarado and Guajardo within weeks of retaining them. Alvarado "was never in the office, he didn't answer my calls, he didn't return my calls," she said. "Also there were conflicts with the mothers of [Navarro's] other children. Guajardo was sharing confidential information with the mothers of the other children and with my mother-in-law about property we had in Mexico." The last straw, she said, was when she requested a meeting with Guajardo and he didn't show up. "With all the conflicts, I just couldn't continue with them," she said. "I wanted someone to be serious about the case." Alvarado, Guajardo and Lyon deny that they failed to adequately represent Puente and argue that she wanted a new lawyer simply because they determined that she didn't have legal standing to sue as Navarro's wife because of her marriage to another man in Mexico as a teenager.
While they claim Puente wasn't eligible to receive money, Alvarado and Lyon maintain that they would have sued on behalf of her children, gotten a settlement equal to the one Garcia got and therefore deserved part of it since Garcia allegedly interfered with their contract. "The same work would have been done whether or not Maria Puente had standing," Jenevein says, "except the money would have gone to the children, not to her directly."
When Puente told Navarro's brother that she was worried about how Alvarado and Guajardo were handling her case, he recommended she go see Garcia. The former Dallas mayor pro tem and League of United Latin American Citizens general counsel has practiced law in Dallas since 1983 and runs a seven-lawyer firm in Oak Cliff that specializes in personal injury law. By 2006 he'd litigated 50 wrongful death cases and tried 70-100 jury trials. When Puente went to see Garcia about her case in October 2006, they discussed her marriage at 16 in Mexico. She told Garcia that she had been raped and then forced by local authorities and her assailant's parents to marry the alleged rapist without her parents' consent. "For me, that marriage never existed," she would testify in court. At some point around the time she hired Garcia and terminated Alvarado, Puente says, she looked for a Mexican lawyer online and hired the Monterrey-based Jorge Dagoberto Luna, who advertised online as an attorney specializing in family law, to annul the marriage. Garcia says Luna and several other Mexican legal professionals maintained it could be annulled, even at such a late date, because of her age at the time and the alleged lack of parental consent.
According to Garcia, the Monterrey legal-assistant-posing-as-a-lawyer strung them along for months, continuing to assure them he'd resolve the annulment and asking for more payments to do so. Yet Cleveland Wrecking Co. and Mike's Trucking, defendants in the wrongful death case, must have decided that the 12 years Puente lived with Navarro as his wife, as well as the four children they had together, constituted sufficient standing in court, because they settled for $5 million in March 2008. Three million of that went to Puente, and $2 million was designated to lawyer's fees, according to court records.
Alvarado and Lyon later sued Garcia and Puente. In early 2009, Garcia, through Friedman, accused Alvarado and Guajardo of witness tampering and filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent further tampering. The result was a series of melodramatic hearings in which each side accused the other of threatening witnesses and pressuring uneducated, Spanish-speaking people to sign false affidavits.
The first witness in a February hearing was Mike Robinson, owner of Mike's Trucking, Navarro's employer. Before he could answer a question, the court was drawn—for the umpteenth time—into the issue of whether the witness would be allowed to refer to Puente as Navarro's widow. Judge Priddy voiced concern that if she was not Navarro's spouse that would "constitute fraud on the court" and said he might sanction Garcia for producing evidence of a questionable annulment. The judge directed everyone to refer to Puente simply as "Maria."
Robinson then testified that in the days following Navarro's death, he was at a Navarro relative's home in Garland when Guajardo arrived and introduced himself as counsel for the family. He later found out that, at the time, Guajardo had not yet been sworn as an attorney. Then, in late 2008 leading up to the trial in the fee dispute, Robinson said Guajardo contacted him through a mutual friend. They had dinner at a Chili's near Grand Prairie, Robinson said, and Guajardo told him that Puente had committed fraud and that if she didn't remove herself from the case, she would face jail time. "He told me, 'Get in touch with [Navarro's brother] and get him to talk to Maria to pull herself away from the case, or we're going to have to go and do things that may possibly get her thrown in jail,'" Robinson said.
Guajardo denies ever threatening Robinson or anyone, for that matter. According to Jenevein, the strongest evidence in their case that Garcia "induced" Puente to be his client wasn't the alleged fraud, but rather testimony by a Navarro relative suggesting that Garcia offered Puente money to help her illegally cross the border after visiting Mexico (Garcia denies ever offering her money).
Robinson testified that during their conversation at Chili's, Guajardo repeatedly insisted that he did not introduce himself as a lawyer in August 2006. Robinson also said Guajardo brought up the fact that Robinson had loaned Puente the $2,500 that supposedly was used to pay a smuggler to cross the border. Guajardo warned him "that could come back on [Robinson]," which he interpreted as a threat. "It didn't seem right that somebody could go around making threats like that," Robinson testified.
Next to take the stand was Patricia Muñoz, a Spanish-speaking woman whose husband was killed in a workplace accident and, like several other witnesses who'd at one time had contact with Alvarado's firm, had switched to Garcia to represent them in their ensuing wrongful death case.
Muñoz had signed an affidavit prepared by Garcia's office that claimed Guajardo had introduced himself to her as a lawyer at a funeral home in 2007 after her husband's death and told her she "had a good case" worth "thousands of dollars." The night before the February hearing, Guajardo appeared at her doorstep unannounced at 9 p.m. He'd prepared a new affidavit in Spanish that recanted her assertion that he'd introduced himself as an attorney and tried to solicit her case. Over the course of three hours, she took issue with some of the phrases in the new document, and before he finally left, at around 12:30 a.m., she signed it. When she appeared in court the next day she seemed flustered and confused, and her testimony seemed a pointed demonstration of two teams of lawyers shamelessly attempting to manipulate an uneducated immigrant in order to win.
Next to testify was Susana Loera, a legal assistant who had been paid a salary by Alvarado in 2005 to work at the Mexican Consulate and who clashed with Alvarado, Guajardo and consulate staff. After leaving her job there, she denounced the consulate in early 2006 for giving bad legal advice—recommending that Mexican nationals accused of crimes flee the country, for example—and failing to help Mexican women who complained of being abused and raped by Mexican men.
Now a teacher with the Dallas Independent School District, Loera testified in Priddy's court that during her conflicts with the consulate, she'd received late-night calls from people who threatened to kill her and that as soon as she appeared on Garcia's witness list in the fee dispute, the calls began again. She accused Guajardo of being behind them. "I began receiving phone calls from restricted phone numbers calling me all kinds of obscene names at all hours of the night," she testified. "They said it would be in my best interest not to show up for my family's sake."
Loera didn't provide phone records to corroborate her accusations of death threats, and Guajardo openly laughed in court at her claims.
The most explosive moments in the litigation were reserved for the April hearing after Jenevein called Jorge Dagoberto Luna to testify against Garcia, who had hired him to annul Puente's 1990 Mexican marriage. The problem? Luna was not a Mexican attorney. Jenevein, displaying the affidavit Garcia's office had Luna sign during the wrongful death lawsuit, asked "If this affidavit says you have been practicing law since 2000, would that be true or false?"
"False," Luna said.
"Mr. Luna, if this affidavit says that marriage and annulments is the primary area of your practice in Nuevo Leon, would that be true or would that be false?"
Jenevein sought to prove that Garcia had defrauded the court in 2007 by preparing a false affidavit that suggested Puente's annulment was being processed when it had actually been dismissed by a Mexican court. Luna—in answer to Jenevein's questions—said Garcia gave him the document in English, which he is unable to read, and he signed it on the assurance from Garcia that it was for his office's use only. "If I'd known that document was going to be presented in a court of the United States I never would have signed it."
Friedman says the attempt to prove fraud was merely a distraction to "muddy the waters." Jenevein, on the other hand, argues that evidence indicating that Garcia filed a false affidavit to prove Puente was Navarro's legal wife constituted fraud, and cuts against Puente's claim that she had the right to terminate her contract with Alvarado and Guajardo because they failed to adequately represent her when they properly advised her she had no standing to sue. Jenevein later directed Luna's attention to the events on March 28 and asked him to recall what happened.
"I was leaving the apartment that I rent to deposit 3,000 pesos that I had...A truck stopped violently in my way, a black, old van-style truck. Three men got out. The first one pushed me from the back. I fell forward. They started to hit me, kick me all over my body...It was very fast, like 15 seconds. One of them pulled out my cell phone and my wallet from my pants pocket, and in between blows they paused. And they said to me something I haven't forgotten and I don't think I'll forget for a very long time."
"What did they say to you?" Jenevein asked.
"This is just a little taste of what can happen to you if you get into it with Domingo Garcia." Later, Luna would admit that he had no photos of his bruises and didn't seek medical help until several days later.
"He has the audacity to accuse a member of the Texas Bar of sending thugs to his neighborhood to beat him up, no witnesses, no photos, no bruises, no doctor, no police report," Friedman said in court. "I don't believe him."
But Luna wasn't finished. Jenevein also asked him if "anything happened in this court today to make you believe that the men who beat you up on March 28 were sent by Domingo Garcia?"
"He was laughing," Luna answered, alleging that Garcia threatened him in open court. "I'm clearly seeing that he's going like this to me [with his hand he made the gesture of a gun with the hammer cocked]."
Garcia would later deny that he had threatened Luna, in court or out. "I have never threatened, sent anybody, or done anything to Mr. Luna," he said. "That just never happened. That's all made up."
As the circus-like day wrapped, Judge Priddy ordered both sides not to talk to witnesses. The trial was set for June 22. In mid-May, however, Alvarado sent Garcia a text message "saying he wanted to mediate the case just me and him," according to Garcia's testimony during the June trial. The men signed two agreements. The first stipulated that Alvarado's office would accept $125,000 to constitute "payment in full for all services rendered by Alvarado and Lyon and complete Alvarado's and Lyon's claims in the litigation." A second agreement, which both sides claim is confidential but which was not technically sealed with the court and was referred to during the proceedings, reportedly stipulated that Alvarado and Guajardo would hold a press conference to publicly recant Luna's testimony about Garcia's alleged threats. That still has not happened.
Despite the agreement, Robert Lyon refused to settle, saying he was excluded from the mediation and insisting that he still had an individual claim to pursue. While Jenevein had represented Alvarado and Guajardo, Lyon chose to represent himself. When on June 19 Friedman and Garcia argued that Lyon's claim had been settled as part of the agreement with Alvarado and should be dismissed, Judge Priddy ruled that there were too many facts in dispute and said he wanted to have a trial to clarify them in case of an appeal.
At the trial's opening, assistants wheeled some 20 boxes into the courtroom. The paper trail filled more than two benches, nearly taking up one entire side of the gallery. Lyon, a diminutive man with a bushy, chest-length beard, launched into his opening statement with quiet seriousness, seemingly oblivious to the irony that he was fighting for a piece of pie that he accused Garcia of obtaining through fraud. "We investigated whether annulment could be obtained, and we found it could not be, and to this day that's right," he said. "She breached the contract. Therefore, the $2 million in attorney's fees, part of that's mine."
Friedman derided Lyon's approach as "the triple dip," pointing out that after getting several hundred thousand dollars in fees for representing other Navarro family members after the worker's death, as well as being entitled to half of the $125,000 agreed to in Alvarado's settlement, Lyon was now demanding part of Garcia's fees even though Garcia was the one who spent 18 months deposing witnesses and building a case. At one point, in a break from his usually staid manner, Lyon insulted Puente—his former client—in open court, wagging his finger and raising his voice. "She's a liar!" he cried. Yet Friedman laid siege to Lyon's trial experience with surgical precision, listing previous years on a projector, asking how many cases the attorney had tried before a jury in each of them and gleefully writing a zero next to nearly every year in the past decade.
The issue of Puente's marriage and Garcia's filing the allegedly fraudulent Luna affidavit continued to befuddle the court. "I'm troubled by this whole situation," Priddy said. "When one lawyer tells a client she's not entitled to a claim, can she go to another lawyer, a more aggressive lawyer? When is that crossing the line?"
"You go to a desk lawyer, you get a desk lawyer answer," Friedman replied. "You go to a trial lawyer, you get a trial lawyer answer. People come to me all the time who've been to four lawyers who didn't see a claim."
Priddy seemed to agree, finding that Puente had the right to terminate her contract with Lyon and Alvarado and ruling against Lyon's claim for any part of Garcia's attorney's fees.
The judge has not yet ruled on whether Garcia is liable for interfering with Alvarado's contingency fee contract with Puente, but after he does, he plans to hold hearings on potential sanctions against both sides in the dispute. "I want to get detailed findings of fact so there are no ambiguities," he said. "It's a complex and substantial case. There's lots of money involved, and it's likely to go up on appeal."
While Pablo Alvarado and Alvino Guajardo settled their fee dispute with Domingo Garcia in the case of Maria Alicia Puente, Friedman's class action lawsuit remains pending. The plaintiffs named in the pleadings—most current or former Garcia clients—make allegations against Alvarado, Guajardo and the consulate that dovetail with the accusations of Susana Loera, the former consulate staffer whose salary was paid by Alvarado and who was the subject of a 2006 Dallas Observer cover story.
Among Friedman's plaintiffs is Maria Salinas, who tells a tale similar to Puente's. After her husband was critically injured in a workplace accident in December 2008, according to the class action pleadings, she sought help from the consulate in getting a temporary visa for the dying man's sister to visit. A consulate staffer told the family, "We have an attorney who can help you," according to the lawsuit, and two days later Guajardo called them on behalf of the consulate. Yet instead of helping them with the visa—which the family never received before the man died eight days later—Guajardo was concerned only "about the facts of the case," according to the lawsuit, and wanted them to sign a contract. They instead sought out Domingo Garcia.
Guajardo and Alvarado dismiss the allegations, saying the Salinas family expressed interest in their services and that when the family decided to look for other lawyers, their office stopped contacting them. "We never even represented them," Guajardo said. "The allegations are groundless," Alvarado wrote in an e-mail.
The two attorneys also deny the claims of Luis Ramirez, whom Friedman alleges was "yet another person in need that Guajardo and Alvarado have used for their own personal gain." A painter, Ramirez in 2005 suffered severe burns to 61 percent of his body, according to the pleadings, which allege that as he lay in the hospital his wife went to the consulate for help with the medical bills and was told only Alvarado's office could assist her. Guajardo allegedly arrived at the hospital and had Ramirez and his wife sign a contract, only to refer the case to another lawyer who "despite telling Luis they were negotiating a settlement not only didn't file a lawsuit but later dropped Luis, telling him they could win the case but not get any money." Guajardo said they researched Ramirez's case and found he didn't have recourse for recovery.
Both the lawyers and the consulate dismiss all these allegations as part of Garcia's grudge. Mexican Consul General Hubbard, in a March visit to the Observer, called the accusations "totally false" and "baseless." In July, he lamented that the consulate was merely caught in a war between the two sets of attorneys and that the accusations needlessly made his staff "feel their reputation is in question." Yet Susana Loera had been complaining of similar problems at the consulate long before either the Puente case or the Salinas case arose.
Loera began working at the consulate as an intern in 2004, and in late 2005, she wrote a letter to then U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez complaining of "many ethical violations and in some cases the blatant disregard for the well-being of Mexican nationals." The Mexican government later held a press conference announcing they had investigated and found no evidence of wrongdoing, but the foreign ministry ignored several requests from the Observer for a copy of the investigation, and publication in The Dallas Morning News of a 2003 letter signed by acting Mexican Consul General Juan Jose Salgado to Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill hardly helped the government's image. "We agree that beating a wife is a shameful and regrettable act from a man," the letter read, "but we have to understand that Mexico is a culture where men are the solely [sic] command of the house, many couples survive with those problems and minor domestic violence is not really punished in our country."
In a recent interview, Loera told me that while she was working at the consulate in 2005, Guajardo was there nearly every day. "He'd literally stand close to the door and go around and coach everyone there that if any wrongful death [cases] came in, he was to get the information," she said. "There were no other lawyers that got cases referred." When once she refused to call Guajardo on his cell phone to alert him of a potential wrongful death case, she says Alvarado threatened to stop paying her salary, saying in an e-mail that she "caused too many problems." Alvarado says he doesn't recall the incident. Loera also said the enmity between Alvarado and Guajardo and Garcia was common knowledge. "If people came in and said they were represented by Domingo Garcia, Guajardo would tell them, 'Oh, he takes forever, you're never gonna see a penny,'" she said. "'You should come back and go with the consulate lawyers.'" Guajardo denies saying this and maintains that Loera's allegations stem from a personal grudge.
In turn, people close to Guajardo and Alvarado accuse Garcia of poaching cases from other lawyers. When during the fee dispute trial Lyon asked Garcia whether as a matter of professional courtesy he advised Puente to work out her differences with Alvarado's office before hiring Garcia, Garcia replied: "I do that with 99 percent of trial lawyers," he said, "but I understand that the law office of Pablo Alvarado commits barratry on a regular basis, so I don't extend that courtesy to him."
I recently visited the new consulate offices on River Bend Drive near Mockingbird Lane and Stemmons Freeway and met with Roberto Nicolas, the consul for the protection department, where six staff attorneys who are Mexican nationals provide people with legal assistance or put them in touch with local lawyers. "Our commitment is to give people a broad understanding of the legal landscape where they are," Nicolas said. "We're lawyers in Mexico, not Texas, so in more complicated cases we reach out to local lawyers for guidance and, in some cases, refer people to them." He and Consul General Hubbard insisted that they provide people with a list of criminal and civil attorneys to choose from. Yet when I called the 11 lawyers on the civil list, it seemed that hardly any get calls from consulate clients, especially for personal injury cases. "I had no idea I was on the list," attorney Fred Adams told me. "If you ever find out how people get on that list, let me know." John Lopez said he gets occasional referrals from consulate clients wanting help with a divorce, but he practices only juvenile law. Tarrant County attorney Chuck Noteboom said he does only pro bono work in consulate cases. "I don't remember the Mexican Consulate ever sending me a personal injury case," he told me. Nonetheless, Nicolas continued to insist that they provide people with a comprehensive list of qualified attorneys—attorneys who, unlike Domingo Garcia, have no sanctions on their records.
Chuck Herring, an Austin attorney and legal ethics expert, says the allegations that Guajardo was soliciting clients at the consulate while offering pro bono services, or that Alvarado's firm gave the consulate financial support (Loera's salary, for example) in exchange for cases, are troubling and could constitute issues of ethical violations or criminal barratry. Either way, he says, it raises questions when one firm seems to be getting all the referrals for certain types of cases. "Suspicions are naturally raised when an entity refers all of its potential clients to a single law firm," he says.
Meanwhile, as Maria Alicia Puente vs. Cleveland Wrecking Company finally wraps up, hundreds of people continue to trickle into the Mexican Consulate each day for help with passports, ID cards, cadaver transfers or legal questions. Inevitably, among those in line will be another bereaved family grieving the loss of a loved one in a fatal job site accident. As they make funeral arrangements and struggle to come to terms with tragedy, they'll most likely be referred to the offices of Pablo Alvarado, and the legal machinery will come to life again.