ALTHOUGH LOTS OF LAWYERS ARE WAXING SLEEK ON THE steady diet of corruption scandai at the Dallas Public Schools, the firm of Bickel & Brewer so far has tast-ed nothing but ashes. Not only did John Bickel and Bill Brewer reportedly lose hundreds of thousands I of dollars representing Matthew Harden, but their offer of a campaign contribution to school board member Don Venable, allegedly in return for his help in Harden’s lawsuit against board president Kathleen Leos, has attracted the district attorney’s unwanted interest in their operations.
“If you’re a Rambo firm looking for big bucks, you’re going to lake big risks,” observes Dallas criminal lawyer Frank Jackson. “Apparently in this case that didn’t work out.”
Bill Brewer and John Bickel went into practice in the early ’80s with the intention of practicing “New York-style law,” says Brewer, which he defines as “truth neutral”-it doesn’t matter whether clients are right or wrong, only that the lawyers aggressively pursue their interests. In the years since, they’ve became known for scorched earth tactics that leave opponents reeling-and for their look-alike styles. Bickel and Brewer not only look alike, they are about the same height (short), dress in simitar styles, and drive matching Porsche Carreras.
In the Harden case, Bickel & Brewer filed a blitz attack of six lawsuits-against two private detective firms; Yvonne Gonzalez; Kathleen Leos, Jose Plata, and Robert Hinkle; the school board and the district as a whole-amending their petitions frequently with titillating language, hiring transcribers to churn out deposition transcripts to give to the press the next day, and putting a public relations company on retainer to keep the case in the headlines.
In October, Bickel & Brewer offered to settle the case against Gonzalez for $750,000. Gonzalez’s camp insisted that if the board agreed, certain conditions should be attached: that the money would be paid out over time; Harden would sign an affidavit saying he had not committed fraud or theft; and that he would relinquish the money if he was indicted or received immunity for his testimony against others. Bickel & Brewer and the board came to no agreement. Ultimately, Harden’s lawyers secured Gonzalez’s resignation, but no money changed hands.
Four months and thousands of their own dollars later, they settled the Leos and school district lawsuits for$600,000, without the onerous restrictions. Harden had to agree to cooperate fully with the investigations, not to file any more litigation against DISD. and not to re-apply for a job at DISD.
In [he Leos lawsuits, Bickel & Brewer represented Harden on a contingency basis, so they will probably receive some portion of the settlement-but far less than they put into it.
Their mistake may have been to mis-measure their client.
Bill Brewer says that after Harden came to his Highland Park home in late July to first discuss his legal options, Brewer was certain of Harden’s rectitude. “If he got into a credibility fight with someone,” Brewer says, “he’d win.”
But Bickel & Brewer declined to make Harden available for depositions, in which his testimony would have been sworn. His lawyers say that’s because confidential documents had surfaced in the case, and it would have been unfair for Harden to be questioned under oath about them.
Others assumed that Harden had a lot that he didn’t care to discuss under a possible penalty of perjury if he lied. “He would have been caught no matter what version of the story he told,” said Mike Gruber, who represented school board president Kathleen Leos in Harden’s $10 million damage suit against her.
A second miscue was to target the unflappable Leos. Harden’s suits, which alleged, among other acts, both slander and invasion of privacy, demeaned Leos as “an apparent stooge ’for the powers that be ’ ” and accused her of a lead role in a corrupt conspiracy to get rid of their client, “a beacon of service” to the school district.
If the charges were meant to rattle her, they didn’t work. Though with few resources of her own-“her house would fit in Matthew’s living room” said sister board member Lynda McDow-Leos was unruffled by the frontal assault on her integrity.
“It’s just politics.” she often said with a smile.
Instead of folding, Leos went to Gruber, whose investigation on her behalf generated unwelcome news for Harden and his lawyers. Gruber uncovered information about cash payments by Harden to his builder. Gruber also included in the case record the allegation that Harden and his friend, Michael Henderson, had each received a S1 million kickback in connection with a DISD contract, which the press picked up.
A source close to the mediation says thai Bickel & Brewer had racked up SI million in expenses and billable hours. They are likely to recover only a portion of the $600,000 Harden received last month in return for dropping all litigation and resigning his position.
In the Venable matter, Don Venable says he refused their offer of financial support but accepted the help of five junior lawyers who showed up in their Lexuses in Pleasant Grove to work for him on election day. (Bickel says that any suggestion that they offered Venable help in return for his vote is “ridiculous” and that the lawyers in his office simply care about good government.) And, after his election, Venable did vote with the majority to remove Leos from her position as board president. Venable now says that he believes Leos did nothing wrong, but he voted to remove her as president because the board was “ungovernable” and out of control.
Now, with the Harden lawsuits settled, Bickel & Brewer can only wait and see how seriously the DA questions their dealings with Venable.