OUT FRONT An Odor at the Courthouse

Dallas is a one-party town with the Republicans firmly in control. But does the GOP practice what it once preached?

SOME MONTHS AGO I HAD THE MISFORtune to be seated at a social event next to a Dallas lawyer named Larry Friedman. The lawyer was very happy with himself. Not only had he landed a nice piece of business representing the Dallas school district, but he had also snagged the Republican county chairman, Bob Driegert, as his new law partner. I ’ ve known Driegert for years, and normally that kind of connection would have led to a conversation. But the lawyer’s tone was so insinuating that I couldn’t abide the idea of sharing more than the banquet food in front of us. So I merely replied with some perfunctory comment along the lines of “that’s nice.”

Apparently for Mr. Friedman, my naivete was appalling. So he took it upon himself to educate me. Didn’t I understand what it meant for a law firm to have the Republican county chairman as a partner? No, not exactly, I replied. Didn’t I realize all the judges were now Republicans and that made them beholden to the GOP county chairman? Couldn ’t I see what that could mean to the clients of a certain law firm that had him as its partner? I think at that point I excused myself and went to the men’s room to wash the sleaze off.

Braggart lawyers are not exactly a novelty. But even the most preening are somewhat circumspect in what they brag about. Not Larry Friedman. The man was almost throwing himself at me as an agent of corruption. I could imagine the ad campaign on billboards. “Want some courthouse pull? Larry Friedman’s your man.”

Instead of billboards, there were bus signs. I was astonished to see them just before the Republican primaries last year. They proclaimed “Bob Driegert for County Chairman.” Bus signs in a county chairman’s race? Driegert spent, he tells me, $80,000 in his race for re-election. That’s nothing compared to what he spent to get the job in 1992-just under $200,000.

Why would anyone spend so much money for an unpaid party post? What really was at stake here? These questions, and more, have been raised to me in the last few months by concerned Republicans and practicing attorneys. Apparently an odor is spreading at the Dallas County courthouse. And it seems to emanate from the law firm of Friedman, Driegert & Hsueh.

Maybe Friedman wasn’t bragging after all. Maybe he was just stating the facts. Maybe I am as naive as he thought I was.

Or maybe something is seriously wrong.


Four decades ago a fledgling Republican Party under PeterO’Donnell began its campaign against one-party government run by Texas Democrat good-ole-boys. My father and mother fought in that campaign, canvassing door-to-door, licking stamps, and along with hundreds of others, doing whatever it took to bring good government to Dallas and to Texas. The crusaders of that day believed deeply that two-party competition would expose wrongdoing and favoritism in our government and make it more responsive to the average citizen.

That kind of idealism made the Republicans the party of choice in Dallas County. I can imagine what a Larry Friedman thinks about idealism. But I can also imagine what fighters for good government like my own father would have thought of Larry Friedman. If Friedman had been stupid enough to make the same remarks o my father that he made to me, my father would have hauled off and slugged him.

Bob Driegert tells me it’s all a perception problem. “Larry’s just a salesman,” he says. Okay. I can accept that. But what is it Driegert thinks his partner is selling? More importantly, what do this law firm’s clients think they are buying?

“As county chairman I have two policies. One is that we will never encourage anyone to run against an incumbent judge. The other is that neither the party nor 1 as county chairman endorses anyone in a contested race. So what power could I have over judges?” Driegert was very concerned that I publish these policies. “That will do a lot to clear the air,” he said. “If I’m not going to run someone against them or even endorse in a race, what would judges care one way or the other how they rule in any particular case?”

What’s so important about the county chairman’s office that someone would pay nearly $300,000 to win and hold it? “I’m a political junkie,” says Driegert. “A partner at a big law firm will take a 70 percent pay cut and spend his own money to be elected judge. I wanted to be county chairman.” Driegert reminded me that he once ran for a legislative seat. “I lost because I didn’t spend my own money. I vowed never to make that mistake again.”

So what’s the story with his partner Friedman? Confronted with Friedman’s statements to me and to others, Driegert merely says, “That’s Larry.”


George Washington Plunkitt, the Democratic boss of New York City in the 1900s, once made a useful distinction between “dishonest graft” and “honest graft.” Boss Plunkitt freely admitted he had gotten rich through politics, but not by such low tactics as extortion or bribery or blackmail. That would be “dishonest graft,” and it was not only dangerous but unnecessary. Instead he had made his fortune through “honest graft,” by using his political pull to garner sweetheart deals that were entirely legal if a little underhanded.

1 don’t believe Bob Driegert is guilty of graft, honest or dishonest. When I asked him, for example, who had contributed to his latest campaign he sent over a packet by messenger containing the photocopies of every check he had received.

But the fact remains that Driegert ’s curious choice of a partner has cast a cloud over the Dallas County judicial system. Rumors swirl, and Friedman capitalizes on them. The fix may not be in, but does that matter if people think the fix is in? Meanwhile, the Republican Party chairman seems content to play the willing dupe.

But is the Republican Party willing to play along? We are back to the days of one-party government in this town. This time it is the Republicans who own the sandbox. And that makes it their responsibility to uphold the integrity of the judicial system.

The Republicans of my parents ’ generation campaigned and won on the premise that one-party government can be dangerous. Maybe it takes a sleazy lawyer to remind us why.