It had been clear for a month that Al Lipscomb--"Big Daddy," as his grandchildren like to call him--was in deep financial trouble.

But on this Friday afternoon in mid-May, Lipscomb seemed full of good cheer, doing what he does best--pressing flesh, meeting and greeting, holding court in the back of this darkly paneled courtroom located deep inside the Earl Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas. Decked out in a handsome navy suit, flashy eyewear, and a spray of gold jewelry, Lipscomb could just as easily have been the featured attraction in a GQ photo spread of the snazzy and successful instead of the main defendant in this tawdry bankruptcy proceeding.

"Good afternoon," Lipscomb said regally, grabbing people's outstretched hands with both of his, a brilliant smile emblazoned across his face. "Thank you for being here."

As usual, Lipscomb's sparkling disposition and massive physical stature was captivating, injecting some much-needed warmth into the cavernous, somber courtroom. But the Lipscomb magic wouldn't last, couldn't last--not in this building, anyway.

True, the federal building is only a stone's throw away from Dallas City Hall, where Lipscomb, one of the senior members of the Dallas City Council, reigns supreme on a daily basis--playing political poker with the city's power brokers, lording over 16,000 jobs and $1 billion in tax money. But here, in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Lipscomb was just another poor slob in need of a good lawyer.

When Judge Robert C. McGuire drily intoned Lipscomb's name from the bench--without a hint of reverence, deference, or even recognition--Lipscomb's good cheer fizzled like a wet Fourth of July sparkler. Slowly, he slumped onto a wooden bench near the back of the room. The trademark Big Daddy smile disappeared.

"The nerve of them coming in here and draining Lipscomb, draining the company," Lipscomb said, his big shoulders hunched, his forehead resting on the back of the bench in front of him. An unhappy man. An oppressed man. "What else do they want?"

Probably just what's owed them.
Lipscomb was here because he and his chemical company, Lipscomb Industries, were deeply in debt to a bunch of people--three of whom had filed a petition with this court in late March, hoping to shutter Lipscomb Industries and force a liquidation of its assets in order to pay off the $127,000 the company owed them.

Those facts, laid out in public court records, had been in the media for a month, as had the news that Lipscomb Industries was failing to service one of its major clients, the Dallas Independent School District. DISD officials had told Lipscomb to take back 48,720 gallons of disinfectant because it did not meet district specifications.

Lipscomb's financial woes had created quite a stir around town, but in truth they were only symptoms of a much more profound issue. Lipscomb and the city's biggest Anglo business leaders--who had helped him create and sustain Lipscomb Industries--were partners in a longstanding marriage of mutual convenience while he was a council member that had spun out of control. It was clear that no matter how badly Lipscomb was feeling about this bankruptcy proceeding, it was nothing compared to how his constituents should feel, if they only knew the shameful story surrounding it.

Lipscomb lifted his head for a moment to glare at his nemeses--two of the bankruptcy petitioners and their attorney, who were perched on a bench some distance ahead with their backs to the councilman. As Lipscomb stared at them bitterly, his daughter, 38-year-old Lavette Lipscomb, whispered in his ear. It appeared, she said, that one of the petitioners might be open to settling the case by entering into a joint venture with Lipscomb Industries.

"So they want to destroy me--my name--and then joint-venture with me," Lipscomb responded loudly, recoiling in mock dismay. With a dramatic grunt, he lowered his head back onto the bench.

The display attracted the attention of a young City Hall beat reporter for The Dallas Morning News. Christopher Lee had been sitting across the room, eyeing the theatrics from afar. Now he nervously approached the councilman, notebook and pen clutched at the ready.

"There's a smell," Lee said, easing himself onto the bench in front of Lipscomb and leaning toward him, clearly hoping this oh-so-casual approach would elicit some inside information from the councilman (who, as Lee may someday learn, needs no such prodding.) "There's a smell in the air. It smells like a deal's about to be cut."

Lipscomb, watching Lee's fat pen go airborne, launched into the tired monologue he'd been delivering--with good results--to any reporter who would listen.

"Someone I truly did love as a business partner and a friend has really brought about this thing," Lipscomb moaned, referring to his Lipscomb Industries partner, Roger Hoffman. "I still have so much feeling for this man and his family. Good God, he's cut me a duster." Lee scribbled furiously. Had Lipscomb talked to Hoffman recently? Lee asked.

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Laura Miller

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