Longform

Courthouse bully

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Department spokesman Lee Jones says he could not determine whether any specific action was taken against Carrao's licenses, though department records confirm that Carrao hasn't held any insurance licenses in Texas since February 1978.

After his insurance business ended, so did Carrao's marriage to Susan. In December 1978, the childless couple separated and were later divorced. As things turned out, the divorce decree wasn't enough to prevent Carrao from waging a campaign of harassment against Susan that lasted more than a decade and landed Carrao in jail.

While the divorce was pending, Carrao vandalized Susan's property, according to court records and a series of complaints filed with the Dallas police. In court pleadings, Susan received a restraining order against Carrao after she accused him of pouring sugar in her gas tank and putting sand in her engine block.

Despite the restraining order, Carrao's antics continued.
After the divorce was final, Susan told police that Carrao had broken into her house and "burned the sofa with what appeared to be a cigarette." She also said Carrao had kicked in a door to her apartment when she was gone, slashed all her furniture cushions and clothing with a knife, and turned on her appliances and left them running.

In 1981 Carrao broke into her house again, prompting a Dallas County grand jury to indict Carrao on felony theft charges. In 1982, Carrao pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of theft and was placed on probation.

Carrao claims the theft was not as bad as it sounds. "Husband and wife stuff, what can I say? I shouldn't have done it. She had taken a bunch of my personal belongings that were separate property, and I went over to get 'em, and I took a couple of other things I shouldn't have."

The "other things" Carrao stole amount to a two-page list of personal items including Susan's shoes, slips, underwear, bras, and panty hose, among other clothing and accessories, according to a Dallas police report about the incident.

While the domestic battled spilled into the criminal-justice system, the civil courts were tending to another complaint about Carrao. About a year after he was out of the insurance business, he started a nonprofit company called the Consumer Rights Council.

Using the alias Tony Angelo, Carrao offered to help victims of consumer fraud obtain settlements from car mechanics, insurance companies, TV repair shops, and other service-oriented businesses. Carrao somehow managed to get his business listed under the "helpful numbers" column in the blue pages of the Dallas phone book--right alongside the Better Business Bureau and the Food and Drug Administration.

Carrao can't recall how his name got listed in the blue pages, and he maintains that he never called himself nor acted like a lawyer. All he was trying to do, he says, was help people with minor disputes that didn't require the services of an attorney.

"It wasn't profitable. I did a lot of those cases free, particularly for elderly people and indigent people," he says. "There was absolutely nothing devious or sneaky or illegal, as far as I'm concerned, about what I was doing."

That is not, however, the conclusion that the State Bar's Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law reached when it successfully sued Carrao in 1980 for practicing law without a license.

As part of the operation, Carrao's customers filled out a standard complaint form and paid Carrao a minimum $15 nonrefundable fee. In exchange, Carrao would give legal opinions and in some cases call up the offending business and bully them into making reparations. If successful, Carrao charged an 18 percent commission.

The Committee not only found that Carrao, having never held a law license, harmed his customers because he was untrained in the law, but that he also posed a danger because he had a habit of suing them for unpaid "fees." In its original petition, the Committee argued that Carrao's tactics were an abuse of the "discovery" process.

When suing its customers, claimed the committee, the "Consumer Rights Council, Inc. has no licensed counsel of record, but instead appears pro se, through Mr. Carrao. Such cases are usually prosecuted by means of lengthy and burdensome 'form' interrogatories which are served upon various defendants by Mr. Carrao." The suits subject these customers to "burdensome 'harassing' tactics by an individual Carrao, who is not subject to effective discipline or control by the bench or bar because he is not a licensed attorney."

Attorney Tom Mills, who represented Carrao in the case on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that what Carrao was doing paved the way for the process of mediation that courts now favor. "And, incidentally, to be a mediator you don't have to be a lawyer," Mills says.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley