Last year, WFAA-TV (Channel 8) ace investigative reporter Brett Shipp told a story about poor and abused tenants in Dallas right out of Charles Dickens’ early 19th century London. In a wretched hovel owned by a cruel and indifferent landlord, a Dallas man was unable to defend himself against a rat that crept out of rotten woodwork to feast upon his toes.
Projected on a green screen behind Shipp was a disturbing photo of the rat — an odd half-white, half-black creature that somehow had been persuaded to pose inside what appears to be an open cardboard box. Shipp told viewers the landlord owned hundreds of substandard properties in Dallas “occupied by people who are disgusted by their surroundings but too poor to leave.”
The reporter seemed to promise that he would rescue the victims of this oppression. “What can be done for them?” he asked. “Tonight, News 8 investigates.”
Now, almost a year later, we know from a court proceeding last week and from expert testimony gathered by the accused landlord that the black-and-white animal shown by Shipp was from a pet store, bred to have cute Holstein-like markings because solid-gray rats are too scary.
We also know that signatures of the supposed rat-bite victim on key court documents were forged. Even more damning, reams and reams of medical records, some of which were in the possession of the plaintiff’s lawyers when he sued his landlord two years ago, make not one mention of a rat bite. Instead, doctors in various hospitals and emergency rooms all saw instantly that the man, who was a frequent patient, was suffering from chronic diabetes. Eventually, his toe had to be surgically amputated — because of diabetes.
Shipp retired recently from WFAA and is a Democratic candidate for the 32nd District congressional seat, held by Republican Pete Sessions, in the March 6 primary.
Three years after the alleged rat bite in 2012, when Baez got around to suing his landlord, his lawsuit painted a lurid picture: “On or about June 17, 2012, at such time that Plaintiff was a tenant in Defendants' property in Apartment 202, 917 Ann Street, Dallas, Texas 75223, Plaintiff was awakened by pain in the second toe of his left foot. Plaintiff saw a rat run off after biting his toe.”
Shipp’s story on Channel 8 closely paraphrased the language of the lawsuit: “It was inside this apartment complex near Fair Park,” Shipp told viewers, “that Jose Baez says he had the worst experience of his life.”
On a green screen behind Shipp as he spoke to the camera was a picture of the apartment building. Shipp told viewers that Baez was “awakened in the middle of the night by a sharp bite on his toe. He looked down to see a rat scurrying off toward the kitchen into a hole where other rodents were nesting.”
Then, behind Shipp, a large photograph of a black-and-white rat in a dirty box was superimposed onto the image of the building. Finally, nailing the story, an image of the real rat, landlord Khraish Khraish, was shown on the green screen where the rat had been.
Last week’s court proceeding was a hearing in which Khraish sought sanctions against Baez’s attorney, Michael Hindman. Judge Kenneth Molberg in the 95th Civil District Court of Dallas County declined to grant the motion for sanctions, but he spoke scathingly of the original lawsuit against Khraish, using the phrase, “wrongly hailed into this court.”
Molberg made it clear he never believed the original rat-bite claim. “I didn’t say there was any great justice in Mr. Khraish being dragged down here,” he said. At another point, Molberg said, “I think that Mr. Khraish was treated unfairly in this matter.
“I still remember Mr. Baez and the fact that he was … really out there. He wasn’t even really comprehending what was going on.
“First of all,” Molberg said, “as the case played out and since we are talking about the personal injury aspect, I can assure you that the claim did not enjoy any support [from Molberg] whatsoever. The plaintiffs didn’t even get close to any evidence.”
But they got close enough for Brett Shipp and Channel 8. That, Khraish says, is where the real damage was done. At last week’s hearing, John Carney, one of Khraish’s lawyers, asked Khraish about the impact the bad publicity had on him and his business.
“Without exaggeration,” Khraish said from the witness stand, “I can honestly say that both my reputation and my business have been destroyed.”
Khraish and his father at one time owned hundreds of small, low-rent properties in West Dallas in an area that is now the scene of aggressive gentrification. At the time of Shipp’s stories about Khraish, the mayor of Dallas was pressing Khraish to sell his properties to high-end developers.
There were people of good intentions and credibility on both sides of that controversy. Sandy Rollins of the Texas Tenants Union took the position that the Khraish properties and leases violated laws to protect poor tenants.
But last year, the national convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens gave Khraish an award for his work in providing affordable housing for the working poor. Suffice it to say that the only thing in the Khraish story that was ever black and white was the rat.
Last week, after the hearing, I wrote to Shipp, whom I have known for years and whose work I generally admire: “Khraish’s lawyers established in court today with extensive medical records that rat-bite victim you referenced in [your] piece was not bitten by a rat but was a diabetic whose toe had to be amputated because of the disease.
“Khraish’s lawyers also established that the rat bite victim’s signature had been forged on key court documents. Bottom line is that the guy was lying when he said a rat bit him. Can you give me any comment or reaction?”
Shipp wrote back: “Jim, I’ll let the courts handle the allegations and sort out the facts. Brett.”
I wrote back: “OK. It's pretty settled.”
That was it. Radio silence after that.
The early involvement of attorney Domingo Garcia in the case opens an entire other level of politics and influence. Among lawyers, Garcia is called “an advertiser,” meaning he’s a high-name-recognition lawyer who pays for large freeway billboards and television ads seeking clients. In response to those ads, his firm receives so many inquiries that it can pick and choose which ones it wants to pursue.
Garcia is also a major Democratic Party fundraiser. Molberg is a Democratic candidate for the 5th District Court of Appeals, Place 12, in March.
Hindman, the attorney for Baez, explained to me that he had worked for a firm that had an agreement to take on some of Garcia’s castoffs — the less slam-dunk cases and cases involving smaller amounts of money. The Baez case was one the Garcia firm passed on and spun off. Originally assigned to another lawyer at the firm Hindman worked for, it was passed off to Hindman when Hindman left the firm.
Hindman told me that the rat photo was already in the file when the case left Garcia’s firm, so it was in the file when Hindman got the case. He said he passed the photo on to Shipp.
Molberg declined to sanction Hindman, saying that Khraish’s lawyers were unable to show that the fault lay specifically with any of the three lawyers who had represented Baez.
In the hearing, Charles W. McGarry, another of Khraish’s lawyers, insistently cited case law to show that Hindman, in suing for medical damages, had an obligation to look at the medical records in his own file, which would have shown there was no bite by a rat — pet or otherwise.
But Hindman had an out there, as well. Last year, on the day and hour McGarry and Carney showed up at Molberg’s court to try the case — at a combined cost to Khraish by then of $60,000 — Hindman rose from his table and simply dropped the rat-bite issue from his claims.
McGarry told Molberg last week that Khraish had to spend $60,000 on legal preparation for the rat-bite claim because the rat-bite was a personal injury matter with potential damages in the six figures. Without the rat bite, all Hindman ever had was a legal issue about leases with a maximum exposure to Khraish of $3,000. Molberg tossed out all of the lease claims anyway in the end. Hindman and his client, Baez, walked out of court without a nickel.
McGarry insisted it had been malpractice under the law for Hindman to bring a personal injury claim for a rat bite while he had on his table a thick file of medical records showing not one mention of a rat bite and consistent, repeated diagnoses of diabetes. Molberg was unmoved, dismissing Khraish’s $60,000 legal expenses as the luck of the draw. Molberg pointed to the fact that Khraish won the case.
“Sometimes you just have to take yes for an answer,” Molberg said.
I know what bothers me in this outcome. I first met Khraish years ago when he was newly out of the University of Texas at Austin, where he had completed multiple advanced business degrees. His father was a poor but smart hardworking Lebanese immigrant who built a substantial real estate portfolio, mostly in low-rent houses for the poor.
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You are welcome to take whatever position you want on his houses. As I have said, there have been smart, decent people on both sides of that one.
The one thing no one can say, however, about Khraish or his father, Hanna Khraish, is that they ever spoke dishonestly. You might have agreed with what Khraish said in his defense, or you might have disagreed. But he was never a liar. He was never sleazy about it. His name and his word are unstained.
On the other side, from the mayor’s office to the city’s newsrooms, people cast slurs and aspersions on Khraish almost nonchalantly, frequently calling him a slumlord and a "junk landlord," for example.
Slumlord is a slur, like Shylock. People use slurs when they don’t have facts. A slur should be a red flag, not proof. It’s an indication that a little bit more digging into the file might be in order. Like: “You got any better evidence than this photo of a Holstein rat?”