By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Vince Ryan wants to be your county attorney. He also wants $7.5 million from the law firm that fired him.
So last April, Ryan, a former city councilman, sued the firm, claiming it promised him riches it never delivered. In its response and counterclaim, the firm states that Ryan was terminated for his ineffective work and is now trying to extort money. The firm also accuses him of breaching confidentiality agreements.
Seems simple enough.
But the firm happens to be Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, the behemoth delinquent-tax collector that services the City of Houston, the Houston Independent School District, Harris County and hundreds of other public entities throughout the country.
It's a firm that formed like Voltron out of the 1998 merger of firms founded by Oliver Heard, who grew up in San Antonio, and Dale Linebarger, a San Marcos native who graduated from St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio.
Heard and Linebarger founded their respective enterprises in the late 1970s, and by focusing on the niche of delinquent taxes, they became two of the biggest collectors by the late 1980s. Their merger created the biggest firm of its kind in the nation, essentially cornering the collections market in Texas.
Thanks in large part to the late Heard's (he died during open heart surgery in 2000) colorful interpretation of certain laws, the firm has operated under a cloud of suspicion for years. In 2005, when partner Juan Pena was convicted of bribing San Antonio officials for a contract with the city and sentenced to prison, it merely added to the impression that the firm's overarching legal philosophy was quid pro quo.
As a Houston city councilman in the early 1990s, Ryan vehemently opposed the privatization of back-tax collections. In 1993, when City Council voted 11-4 to contract with Linebarger, Ryan was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying, "It's not good public policy, and it hurts the very people we are sent here to serve, which is the little people, not the big fancy rich people."
But two years later, Ryan either saw the light or saw dollar signs, because he took a job with the firm. And now a candidate for public office wants you to know that after 11 years with the firm, he deserved to have more fingers in the pie. He claims the firm strung him along and did not recognize his important contributions. Apparently, Ryan believes he is neither as Big nor as Fancy as he deserves to be.
And while the county attorney's office has historically lacked the kind of racist e-mail/fudged test score/drylabbing masterstrokes that make Houston the nation's shining beacon of political integrity, Vince Ryan's lawsuit might make this campaign more memorable. It's not often a candidate willingly hands over the bullets an opponent could use to load the gun.
Just in case you weren't aware, the Harris County Attorney is named Mike Stafford, and he's the only other candidate.
The job is pretty self-explanatory. Stafford is the civil counsel for the county and its various legal entities, which include the hospital, flood control and appraisal districts, among others. It's a pretty low-profile gig, except for when something happens like the sheriff's office gets sued over its deputies allegedly beating two innocent bystanders silly and starts deleting e-mails while at the same time the district attorney gets caught e-mailing his former (?) mistress the kind of soft-core, sub-Cinemax sweetness that would make even Danielle Steele gag. Then you can find yourself caught in the middle.
But otherwise, it's the kind of public office a person can run for without needing to have an actual platform. Ryan's campaign Web site, for example, has a section marked "Platform," but all it is is the office's job description.
The site does include his bio, however. It states that he volunteered and served in the Vietnam War, as well as in the 1989 invasion of Panama which booted dictator Manuel Noriega. Ryan is now a retired lieutenant colonel.
From 1981-1987, he served as an assistant county attorney, then from 1987-1993 as a Houston city councilman. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed him to the Board of the Panama Canal Commission, which oversaw the transition of said canal to Panamanian control in 1999. That same year, the 47-year-old Ryan got hitched to Teresa Pamela Rodriguez. They have three sons.
Curiously, his 11 years with Linebarger Goggan are not mentioned. For that, one has to look at his lawsuit.
Filed in April, the suit claims Ryan was instrumental in the 1998 merger of Calame, Linebarger, Graham & Pena with Heard, Goggan & Blair. Ryan also believes he played an integral part in landing the white whale that was the HISD contract.
According to the suit, Ryan started as a consultant with the smaller Calame, Linebarger in 1995. He was initially paid $2,500 a month for part-time work, which isn't particularly Big nor Fancy, but he soon got a bump to $7,500, which comes to $90,000 a year for a part-time consulting gig.
"On or about October 12 1995, Ryan agreed to work full time for the firm with the title of regional managing attorney," the suit states, "with a salary of $9,000 per month, a car allowance of $600 per month, along with health insurance for Ryan, his wife, and two newly born twins, twins whose hospital care along with Ryan's wife before and after they were born cost $360,000, mostly covered by Ryan's wife's health insurance then in effect." (The suit is brimming with such superfluous factoids, including his military career and the fact that one of the merger discussions took place at the River Oaks Grill).