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SMU's Shame

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Let's assume we have two camps. People in Dallas who love President Bush and would love to see the Bush Presidential Library here. People in Dallas like me who do not love President Bush and would not love to see his library here. Fair enough.

But I don't see why either camp would want to see the library go to Southern Methodist University. Given the ugly history of the land acquisitions underlying their bid, I would think none of us would want to see it at SMU.

For those who revere the president, the SMU site would link his name with an inappropriately dirty story. For the rest of us, that dirty story would provide a darkly appropriate final chapter to the entire Bush saga, which we would rather see end in Waco or West Texas than in our home town.


George W. Bush Presidential Library

The one peek at this story provided by Dallas media in recent months has been a lawsuit brought by Gary Vodicka, who owns condominium units in the University Gardens apartment complex near the intersection of Mockingbird Lane and Central Expressway on the eastern edge of the SMU campus.

Vodicka is suing to stop SMU from demolishing the complex. He claims University Gardens is the site SMU wants to offer for the Bush library. SMU says no decision on a site has been made. Given the property the university does and does not own or control in its immediate environs, however, it's hard to see how University Gardens could be anything but a most-favored location--12.5 acres of land, unoccupied except for Vodicka's small portion, with excellent freeway access, cheek-by-jowl with the SMU campus.

Now shut off by temporary steel fencing--trash-blown, windows walleyed with plywood--the complex looks like an arson waiting to happen. Six years ago it was a thriving, genteel little community of 374 units occupied by people like Mrs. Pat Davenport, now 74, who had raised her children in the Lakewood area of Dallas.

"In 1987, my husband bought a unit at University Gardens, and my plan was for that to be my final resting place," she told me the other day.

In his lawsuit, Vodicka accuses SMU of buying the entire University Gardens complex through a fraudulent scheme authorized by the SMU board of trustees at a time when now Vice President Dick Cheney was a member. "It is my contention," Vodicka told me, "that in 1999 when Bush was running for office, his cronies and friends and politicos thought, well, they wanted the presidential library to come to SMU." He says SMU began buying units with the specific goal of being able eventually to tear down the entire complex.

SMU has denied his allegation and argues it began buying into University Gardens well before 1999 and before any notion of a presidential library. In fact, SMU started buying in about 1998. Those early purchases prompted an attempt by the owners--people like Mrs. Davenport--to stop the university from commandeering the entire complex.

SMU sued the owners to get its way, and that lawsuit now provides a better window on SMU than Vodicka's suit. The earlier suit was settled some years ago. I spoke with the office of SMU's vice president for legal affairs, S. Leon Bennett. His staff referred my questions to Patti LaSalle in the university's public affairs office. I sent LaSalle a two-page single-spaced letter identifying a specific document in the case and providing detailed examples of portions of it I intended to cite in an article.

My purpose was to provide SMU an opportunity to dispute any element. The university did not dispute any of what I presented to them. LaSalle wrote back simply saying, "Your questions relate to past litigation that was settled to the satisfaction of all parties."

Tell that to Mrs. Davenport's 43-year-old daughter, Leslie Davenport. She says owners like her mother caved in and sold at the last minute only out of fear they would be left with nothing. She speaks of other elderly residents who died soon after selling and wonders if stress contributed to their declines.

"We have literally spent since January of 2001 trying to find help, legal help, help from organizations, the ACLU, watchdog groups," she said. "When you don't have money, you can't defend yourself.

"It was very, very upsetting to watch somebody hurt your parents. There were a lot of tears over this, a lot of depression."

The legal battle between SMU and the condo owners turned in part on abstruse provisions of the bylaws of the condominium association, none of which am I going to try to parse. But lawyers for the owners also raised compelling moral issues in the way the university had proceeded, which I think just about any of us can understand.

In the end, all of the owners except Vodicka sold out to SMU in a settlement of SMU's lawsuit against them. But the possibility of placing the Bush library on this same ground gives these moral issues fresh resonance.

The defendant homeowners claimed that SMU knew from the beginning it could pick up units in the complex one or more at a time until it achieved ownership of 75 percent of the complex. Then under the bylaws it could force the remaining 25 percent of owners to sell against their will.

Part of the scheme, the homeowners say, was to put students in university-owned units as blockbusters--tenants whose obnoxious behavior would tend to make other people want to move. In July 2000, an SMU leasing administrator testified under oath that SMU students living in a unit owned by the university had displayed on their balcony the reeking, bloody skin of a slaughtered lamb, a satanic mask and paintings stained with blood. A police report described these as "items usually used in devil worship."

The defendants claimed the president and trustees of the university knowingly and deliberately set about to amass the 75 percent controlling ownership in the complex, move in students and force the remaining residents, 80 percent of whom were elderly, to sell against their will, while stating publicly and explicitly that they had no such plan.

Bennett was especially adamant in the assurances he offered University Gardens residents that there was no plan to take over the complex. Maybe that's why it's hard to get him on the phone about it now.

In a sworn deposition in July 2000, SMU President Gerald Turner said there was no overall strategy driving SMU's purchase of condo units and no plan to use the place for student housing. He said he did not remember any discussion of the 75 percent rule at a 1998 board meeting.

Later the defendants asked the court to sanction the university for failing to produce certain documents. When those documents subsequently were produced, they included a number of letters, statements to bankers and other communications that proved SMU had intended to move students into the complex from the beginning.

The defendants called Turner back for a second deposition. This time Turner was forced to make admissions at odds with his own earlier sworn testimony.

A lawyer asked him: "When you left the meeting of the board of trustees in December 1998, did you personally believe that SMU could be in a position to force elderly residents at University Gardens who did not want to move from their homes?"

Turner said, "We knew we could require the final 25 percent to sell their homes to us regardless of what their demographics might be."

To a second question, Turner said, "Yes, I believe that the 75--the action possible at 75 percent ownership--was explained to the board."

In their arguments against SMU, the owners' lawyers were able to show repeatedly that SMU--in spite of its religious ties and vaunted ethical standards--carried out a clever, ruthless scheme to drive out all the homeowners at University Gardens, including many elderly residents who had known no other home for decades, some of whom had no family to help them and were too old to manage by themselves. And knowing this was the plan, no one in the administration or on the board ever expressed a single moral or ethical qualm.

Present at the 1998 board meeting where staff informed trustees of their 75 percent strategy was board member Cary M. Maguire, chair and president of Maguire Oil, who endowed SMU's Maguire Chair in oil and gas management, as well as the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. The SMU staff person who presented the 75 percent strategy to the board testified later under oath that no trustee at the meeting, including Maguire, raised a question about the ethics of forcing elderly people out of their homes against their will.

SMU President Turner was also present at that meeting. A lawyer asked him later in a deposition if during the 1998 meeting he or any other trustee had remembered verse 17, chapter 20 of the book of Exodus in the Bible: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house."

Turner said: "It was never discussed in that, because as we have discussed before, there is always an argument on decisions that have ethical implications to them. And the question is, is it ethical for the institution, for SMU not to try to look for the betterment of its future? Is it ethical to not be responsible toward opportunities that the university will need in the future? And so the ethics of how one proceeds in a situation is always within the boundaries and the end points of view in terms of what is ethical."

Why am I thinking here of Karl Marx and "the ends justify the means?"

I'm not saying SMU broke the law. But I am saying the way SMU took this land was ethically filthy. And I wonder why now on this ugly foundation we should want to see a monument to George W. Bush.

More than in any other modern regional city in the country, the reputation of Dallas has been shaped by presidential history. And not well. It's incredible to me that right now, as we talk about bringing this memorial to Bush here, The Dallas Morning News is beating the drum again to have the memorial to the assassination of John F. Kennedy torn down.

Don't we need to think this through--all of it? Perhaps there is almost no one left at The Dallas Morning News who remembers that some respected national figures in the late 1960s believed the Morning News and its owners were culpable in the Kennedy assassination. I remember. I still get chills when I recall the words of William Manchester in his 1967 book, The Death of a President: He wrote about Dealey Plaza and its memorial statue of Morning News founder George Bannerman Dealey.

Describing first the grimy interior of the School Book Depository warehouse across the street, Manchester continued: "But if you really want a proper perspective of the Dealey Memorial, the northeast window on the sixth floor of the warehouse is incomparable."

Manchester meant the Morning News had contributed to a volatile atmosphere of extremism in which Lee Harvey Oswald became an inevitability, not that anyone at the paper took part in a plot. I interviewed the late Stanley Marcus in the mid-1980s, and he agreed with Manchester.

What Dallas needs to do with the Kennedy Memorial is stay the hell away from it, keep the graffiti scrubbed off and otherwise maintain a sober, respectful silence. And we need to be equally sober-minded and practical in weighing the whole idea of a Bush library.

We are talking about rounding out a certain picture. I won't be coy about my own politics. I believe George W. Bush will leave the White House the most disgraced and failed leader in the Western world since World War II. Turning Dallas into his White House in exile will complete the impression that began with the killing of Kennedy. If we want to spend the rest of the century as the dead-enders' ultimate dead end, I think this is the way to do it.

Lots of people in Dallas do not think as I do. The president has many loyal and fervent supporters here. But even they need to think twice about allowing SMU to put his pyramid on the stained soil beneath the hull of University Gardens. All that will accomplish is to link the name of George W. Bush with an ugly escapade of institutional chicanery and arrogance.

Of course, from my point of view, that would make a perfect symmetry. But why would you want to make things so easy for me?

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