Now you see him

How perfect. Just as they begin trying to hire a new superintendent of schools to replace the one who left to go to the Big House, the members of the Dallas school board have erupted into a particularly nasty behind-the-scenes battle over fraud, lawsuits, and their own personal liability.

The Dallas Morning News editorialized last week that candidates for the job--being interviewed in secret videoconferences last week and this--should be made to "answer tough questions."

Oh, sure. Exactly what kind of tough questions is this board in a position to ask anybody?

Possible questions:
"Are you in a crew?"
"Got any tattoos?"

"We're very interested in results in Dallas. You ever do any really big (wink-wink) scores?"

The first public indication that there was fresh mischief afoot at school headquarters last week was the surprise puff-of-smoke reappearance of Don Venable, who had resigned from the school board only last October for unclear reasons. The reasons for his sudden Lazarus-like return to the board were equally unclear, at least at first.

Before winning election to the board, Venable was half of a duo who brought serious shame and embarrassment to the Dallas school board by suing it repeatedly, mainly over financial practices. But in 1992, when the school board apparently plotted to use a bogus lawsuit of its own to silence the pair, Venable and his former partner in gadflyism, Richard Finlan, struck back with a civil rights lawsuit seeking big damages.

So far, the two non-lawyers representing themselves in court have beaten the pants off a series of big Dallas law firms. Just before the holidays, the Texas Supreme Court gave the district yet another raspberry by denying its main claim of official immunity and sending the suit back to Dallas for trial.

Right after the holidays, John Martin, the district's lawyer on the case and himself a former board member, began trying to set up a mediated settlement conference. A sudden enthusiasm for mediation is sometimes a sign that a lawyer has unpleasant news for his clients and would be happy to pay a mediator to tell them about it.

For his part, Martin confirmed last week that settlement talks are in the air and that he has been the one doing the talking. He claimed his loss at the Supreme Court "has not changed anything, because my clients still don't believe there's any liability." He said no settlement conference is scheduled at the moment "because I couldn't get anybody to show up."

Just to make things a bit more complex, Finlan and Venable have split up, largely over tactics. Venable tends to want to make nice with the board but wants a settlement. Finlan is determined to take money personally from the board members themselves, even if it means forgoing a juicier settlement from the district. He is fond of saying, "I don't care if I only get a hundred dollars from [board president Hollis] Brashear, as long as it's his last hundred."

One thing about which Venable was emphatic last week: His surprise reappearance had nothing at all to do with the persistent rumors that the board might be weeks or maybe only days away from offering him, Finlan, and three other plaintiffs in the case a $1.5 million settlement.

"It has nothing to do with that at all," Venable says. "I came back strictly for the good of the district."

Pausing a beat, Venable adds, "But that number sounds good to me." (In any event, Venable didn't stick around long. He quit the board in a huff again Monday night. This time, he says, for good.)

So, anyway, just how does someone who has publicly resigned from a school board suddenly come back a few weeks before the election of his successor and announce he's going to be sitting in on a few more sessions and casting a few key votes?

With a legal opinion.
Rob Hoffman, of Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox (one of the school district's two zillion outside law firms), says it's right there in the state constitution:

"The Texas Constitution provides for a holdover doctrine," he says. "Even after a board member or trustee has resigned and that resignation has been accepted by the board, the trustee must continue to perform the duties of his or her office..."

And it goes on from there. It sounds very good. Right there in the Texas Constitution. Venable is absolutely legal. He can change his mind. Until his successor is sworn in, he can keep showing up like Elvis as long as he likes. Resign. Unresign. Thank you very much.

So, why did he resign the first time?
"I was very tired," he says. "I was literally physically sick. I could not get my blood sugar under control. I was having a difficult time with depression."

Well, but wait a minute. If coming back had nothing to do with the settlement, then why did he want to unresign?

"I didn't, at first. I didn't think I could. I had this e-mail debate with Rob Hoffman. He said I could, and then he finally convinced me. I didn't want to do it if there was going to be any problem."

But wait. If it wasn't Venable's idea to come back, whose idea was it?
Without getting very specific, Venable conveys the impression that he was brought back on the board by the wing of the board that has come to be known informally as "the girls"--that is, Kathleen Leos, Lois Parrott, Roxan Staff, and their male confederate, Jose Plata.

Kathleen Leos was fairly open about the fact that she wanted Venable to come back and cast a key vote on granting a contract to Peat Marwick, the accounting firm, to conduct a three-year, $1.5 million fraud audit of the district. The African-American wing of the board, led by Brashear, has been fighting to get Peat Marwick turned out of the job and the contract let to some other firm.

Brashear's line has been that Peat Marwick, as the district's chief outside auditor for several years while nobody noticed any fraud going on, is too close for comfort. What the DISD needs, he has said consistently, is a new broom--anyone but Peat Marwick.

Leos' line on the Peat Marwick deal echoes a street rumor that has been increasingly strong in recent weeks: that Peat Marwick, if anything, feels burned by the district's administrative staff. Like other people who have had conversations with the Peat Marwick auditors in recent weeks, Leos has the strong impression that they think they've been lied to by the staff. Leos says she thinks Peat Marwick is ready to kick some fiduciary butt and maybe even come up with something on the order of $30 million a year in fraud at the district.

For months after Venable left, the board was deadlocked 4-4 on the question of the contract. Leos and her team wanted Venable back in to break the deadlock.

But wait a minute. He was sick. Sick of the board. Depressed. Bad blood sugar even. What could persuade Don Venable to come back from his sickbed and cast that last quavering tie-breaking vote in favor of letting Peat Marwick do the fraud audit?

Leos says she hears rumors about settlement deals with Venable and Finlan all the time and knows nothing about them. She did not know John Martin was trying to schedule a settlement conference. "Not that I am personally aware of," she says. "I don't know anything about those negotiations."

She did say that the $1.5 million figure that keeps getting floated around could have something to do with the $1.6 million liability insurance fund that the state holds for the district in Austin.

Makes a bit of sense. If the district could persuade Venable and chums to accept that amount as their road money, then the district could tell the taxpayers that none of their money is being spent to pay off the lads.

But there is a gadfly in that ointment: Richard Finlan, Venable's former partner in insurrection, is not quite so ready to come in from the cold, even for a few hundred thousand. In fact, Finlan may be the main reason John Martin was unable to bring off a mediated settlement this month.

"John Martin says, 'I want to get the whole board in mediation,'" Finlan said last week. "I said, 'You can't do that.' We have open-meeting laws in this state. We also have state law that says a governmental entity cannot pay damages if they arise from an intentional tortious act by governmental officials.

"I say, if we're going to have a meeting about this stuff, then I want the public in there so they can see what's being done with their money."

At the end of last week, after Venable had appeared like the ghost of Christmas past and threatened to break the fraud audit tie, the board agreed 8-0 to allow Peat Marwick to have the contract. And who knows what may really be happening or not happening with the settlement deal?

But it's a little something for a superintendent candidate to ponder, isn't it? Imagine them, off in Kansas or New Jersey or wherever, peering at the little videoconference television set at their end and thinking, "Now, which ones are trying to head off the fraud audit, and which is the one suing the rest of them for civil rights violations? And where would I fit in?"

Can't tell you that till we see those tattooss.

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