Getting Schooled

A group of former condo owners say SMU defrauded them of their homes to make way for the new Bush library.

Even though Leslie Davenport is not a party to the litigation, nothing can keep her away from the Dallas County district court next October. That's when Southern Methodist University is scheduled to defend its reputation for what Davenport claims was the unconscionable treatment her mother and others suffered at the hands of a school willing to intimidate and deceive in its plan to grab land for the George W. Bush presidential library.

The lawsuit features two plaintiffs, attorney Gary Vodicka and dentist Robert Tafel, who, though unyielding, do not appear to be acting out of any lofty political principle — no hot stick in the eye for an unpopular ex-president. Their complaint is more pragmatic. They allege that as former residents of what was once the 350-unit University Gardens condominium (where Davenport's mother also lived), they were subjected to a protracted scorched-earth strategy orchestrated by the university to defraud them of their homes.

The complex has been flattened now and reduced to rubble, its residents long gone, but that doesn't erase the memories that Davenport has of the place where her mother Pat moved in 1986 and planned on spending the rest of her life. Leslie recalls how nicely her mom fixed up her two-story townhouse, carefully hanging pictures of her children on its off-white walls. She felt safe in Dallas's Park Cities, her home bordering SMU's stately tree-lined streets and red-brick Georgian Revival buildings.

Attorney Gary Vodicka is now suing his old alma mater, alleging SMU defrauded him and other residents of the University Gardens in its plan to acquire land to build the Bush library.
Mark Graham
Attorney Gary Vodicka is now suing his old alma mater, alleging SMU defrauded him and other residents of the University Gardens in its plan to acquire land to build the Bush library.
The empty site in front of the SMU campus is where the University Gardens condominiums sat for nearly 40 years until being demolished to make room for the 25-acre George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Mark Graham
The empty site in front of the SMU campus is where the University Gardens condominiums sat for nearly 40 years until being demolished to make room for the 25-acre George W. Bush Presidential Center.
In December 2005, the SMU-controlled homeowners association of University Gardens sold all the condo units to Peruna Properties, SMU's real estate arm, but the demolition of the complex wasn't complete until 2007.
Mark Graham
In December 2005, the SMU-controlled homeowners association of University Gardens sold all the condo units to Peruna Properties, SMU's real estate arm, but the demolition of the complex wasn't complete until 2007.
In late 2005, attorney Mark Stradley sold his University Gardens condo to SMU, which, in addition to paying his selling price of $275 per square foot, agreed to endow a scholarship in the name of his late father.
Mark Graham
In late 2005, attorney Mark Stradley sold his University Gardens condo to SMU, which, in addition to paying his selling price of $275 per square foot, agreed to endow a scholarship in the name of his late father.
Attorney Larry Friedman, who represents former resident Robert Tafel, claims that once SMU started stacking the condo board with its employees, those board members had a duty to protect the interests of the condominiums' residents.
Mark Graham
Attorney Larry Friedman, who represents former resident Robert Tafel, claims that once SMU started stacking the condo board with its employees, those board members had a duty to protect the interests of the condominiums' residents.

But by April 1999, SMU began gobbling up condos at University Gardens, purchasing 10 percent of the units within months and filling them with students, some of whom acted rude to the residents, most of them elderly. The school's general counsel, Leon Bennett, who remains involved with the case but could not be reached for comment, met with anxious residents in August of that year to assure them that SMU wasn't up to anything nefarious. He told them the university just wanted to make sure the complex didn't fall into the hands of a developer, who might raze the complex and erect a high-rise that would be a towering eyesore to the colonial-style campus.

Bush, then in his second term as governor, had only two months earlier announced that he was joining a crowded field of candidates for the Republican nomination for president. So the idea of a Bush presidential library located on their 12-acre complex never crossed the minds of the residents; on the contrary, Bennett told them that SMU had no immediate interest in the complex, though in 15 years or so, it might consider the site for student housing or an intramural field.

But at the 1999 meeting, many of the residents already were convinced that the only developer from whom they needed protection was SMU. Their fears were exacerbated by 2002, when the university continued to purchase units even though, under the bylaws of the complex, SMU owned enough of a stake (26 percent) to prevent any grasping developer from taking over the property. Although SMU made no secret of the fact that it was interested in housing the Bush library, the school remained vague about its exact location.

In 2002, after SMU began buying units at a furious clip, Pat grew frightened. SMU wanted to buy her and other residents out, offering them an extremely low price, Pat thought, for her home and a nearby unit she owned and rented out. Pat spent many nights on the phone with her daughter, worrying about her home and her finances. She owned both units outright — they were security for her retirement — but if she accepted the university's low-ball offer, she couldn't maintain her quality of life. If she didn't agree to it, the university said it would take the offer off the table. And with SMU rapidly acquiring a controlling interest in the complex, no other buyer would purchase her home.

All these negotiations seemed far too sophisticated for her; she finally gave in and sold both units in 2003. But before selling, she wanted to give the university a piece of her mind and handed SMU's brokers a two-page letter, writing that she was selling her home "totally against my wishes," and that "quite frankly, I'm terrified about how I'm going to be able to take care of myself during my remaining years."

After the sale in 2003, Pat moved into a Lake Highlands townhome but couldn't make ends meet without the assistance of her ex-husband. Within months of the move, she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, and in May 2007, she would die from the disease.

Although no one blames SMU for her death, Leslie is convinced that her mother's condition was exacerbated by the pitched fight over her home. "All the doctors we went to asked if she had been under a lot of stress," Leslie says. "It's very sad to know that the last years of my mother's life were filled with such trauma and turmoil."

The story of SMU's efforts to secure the George W. Bush Presidential Center has been reported as a story about a philosophical rift between SMU's administration and dissenting faculty and alumni who wanted no part of the proposed library's neoconservative think tank, fearful it would strap an ideological straitjacket on an institution dedicated to higher learning. But that partisan conflict, while of national interest, was just an entertaining sideshow to the story of an aggressive real estate play on the part of SMU and its powerful alumni, spearheaded by Dallas oilman Ray Hunt, to secure land for the Bush library to its east, the only direction the otherwise landlocked university had to grow.

SMU, both in and out of court, forcefully maintains that it has done nothing wrong. John McElhaney, of counsel with the ­Dallas-based law firm of Locke Liddell, which represents SMU, says the school looked at the University Gardens site "at a fairly early stage" as a possible location for a presidential library, along with other school uses. But the university didn't hatch a stealth plan to steal people's homes; it merely followed the complex's own rules, which allowed the school to take over the condos once it owned a super-majority of units.

"SMU definitely wanted the property," he says. "What's false is this accusation that there was this evil plot to get it for the library. That's just baloney."

For SMU, a university that lacks a stellar academic reputation outside of Texas, the presidential center could raise its national profile for generations. The library would be ground zero for any historian wanting to learn more about the seminal events that highlighted, if not plagued, Bush's presidency. And those historians won't care one bit about how that library came into being.

On February 22, 2008, SMU landed the presidential library complex with its accompanying Freedom Institute think tank. Its efforts to generate real estate options for the library paid off handsomely. All but two residents at University Gardens sold their homes to SMU, which would demolish the complex in 2007.

But the two who held out, Vodicka and Tafel, have made life miserable for the image-conscious university. In August 2005, Vodicka filed a lawsuit against SMU (Tafel would sign on later) that has resulted in the discovery of thousands of confidential documents which show just how desperately SMU wanted the presidential center and what its administrators were willing to do to get it. More recently, the plaintiffs convinced State District Judge Martin Hoffman to order the deposition of George W. Bush — an unprecedented inconvenience for an ex-president — so that the plaintiffs can discover what the university was telling the president about its plans.

Vodicka and Tafel don't make the most sympathetic plaintiffs. Tafel, who owns a thriving dental practice in Euless, between Dallas and Fort Worth, once rankled some of his fellow residents in a meeting by bragging about his personal wealth. Vodicka, who represents himself, had been mired in a contentious lawsuit with his brother over the mortgage of his own condominium until they recently agreed to a settlement. Friends and foes often remark how obsessed he is with defeating, if not humiliating, SMU in court.

The university, meanwhile, has employed a team of high-powered attorneys, who have savagely attacked the plaintiffs' character; in March, SMU's lead trial lawyer, Mark Lanier from Houston, told The Dallas Morning News: "SMU has been overly generous. You don't negotiate with terrorists, and you don't give in to a shakedown."

That comment came after the plaintiffs rejected SMU's settlement offer of $1 million each.

"They tried to accuse me of being greedy when they stole dozens of people's homes from them — if not over a hundred — solely for the purpose of saving tens of millions of dollars," Vodicka says. "I ask you who is greedy."
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Just why SMU would want the Bush library may have as much to do with its past as its future. Given its handsome campus and location in a big city teeming with high-dollar patrons, SMU should be among the best schools in the country, a complaint many professors are quick to repeat. In fact, in the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking of the country's best universities, SMU came in 66th, two spots behind Texas A&M. SMU simply isn't that selective in its application process.

"I think the board has a parochial view," says former SMU anthropology professor David Freidel, who was a critic of the Bush library complex before joining the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis in 2007. "They want SMU to be a place for their children to attend if they don't go to Stanford or Vanderbilt or Duke; they want a good school in their neighborhood."

Freidel, who speaks fondly of his former students and colleagues, says that while SMU has little trouble raising money, its backers tend to funnel it into showy new buildings and monuments, including a new football stadium. Even the Bush library complex, which will be paid for by private donations, will likely take away contributions that could have gone to elevating SMU's academic standing.

But for a university still widely known for a generations-old football scandal, a presidential library might provide a new platform for global exposure. And yet the pay-for-play scandal still pops up in debates over the library, notable not just because its particular brand of cheating was approved by then-Board president Bill Clements, who was between terms as governor, but also because the NCAA decided to institute an unprecedented "death penalty" against SMU, which canceled the next two seasons and destroyed its football program.

The man who came to SMU's rescue was Ray Hunt, the pragmatic son of legendary oilman H.L. Hunt. In the wake of Clements's departure, Ray became the president of the school's Board of Trustees. He recruited a new university president to replace Donald Shields, who knew about the cash payments to players but didn't stop them. Hunt and the new board tapped Kenneth Pye, a well-­respected legal scholar and administrator from Duke, who quickly garnered the respect of the faculty for his emphasis on academics.

"What Ray did was select a good CEO and then gave him his support," says Peter Winship, an SMU law professor. "Ray helped Ken reorganize things at a difficult time."

Pye was only president for seven years before he passed away from cancer in 1994. To replace him, the board tapped Gerald Turner, who lacked Pye's scholarly credentials but earned the trust of the faculty — even those who adamantly opposed the Bush library.

Some faculty feel the Board of Trustees orchestrated the push for the library complex, while Turner merely executed their wishes. The board boasts a long list of loyal and wealthy Republicans, including Hunt, Laura Bush and former vice president Dick Cheney, who was a trustee until Bush tapped him as his running mate, as well as during the time trustees decided to begin buying units at the University Gardens.

"I think what has gone on with the Bush library, from the planning to the real estate part of it, has come at the behest of the Board of Trustees," says Alexis McCrossen, an associate professor of history, who opposed the think tank. "It was said openly amongst faculty members that if SMU did not receive the bid for the presidential library, Turner would be fired. That was common knowledge."

Other professors take issue with that assessment, or at least part of it. "I wouldn't put it that baldly," says Dennis Foster, the outgoing president of the faculty senate and a professor of English. "There are very, very strong supporters of Bush on the Board of Trustees. It was unquestionable that they wanted the library here, but early on Turner looked at this as a way to bring recognition to SMU that I don't think had much to do with his politics or fear of the trustees."

That Turner had set his sights on bringing the Bush library to campus was evident from an e-mail he sent to Pierre Mawet, a Dallas consultant, in February 2001, one month after Bush's inauguration. In the e-mail, Turner notes that SMU has "a lot of interest" in the project and administrators "certainly have been making preliminary plans for approximately one year." This would put SMU in the planning stages six months after Bennett told University Gardens residents that their homes were safe with SMU — and six months before Bush received his party's nomination.

"The major challenge we have is land," Turner wrote in February. "We are currently underway with efforts to obtain land on the east side of campus and will be developing plans for the presidential library there."

One month earlier, on January 2, 2001, Turner e-mailed a local architect and wrote that one possible site for the Bush library was where "University Gardens now sits." But at this point, SMU had yet to acquire a controlling interest in the complex. SMU would later use the condo site in its architectural renderings as a part of its November 2005 proposal for the Bush library.

Although the school never revealed its plans to the residents of the complex, likely to keep down the asking price, it didn't take long for SMU to make its intentions known to the Bush administration. Ray Hunt became SMU's pitchman for the project, bringing up the subject when he and his wife were invited to dine at the White House with the president and first lady shortly after the inauguration. According to Hunt's deposition, the two couples retired to the living room, and "it was five minutes or so of me suggesting that when the time came for him to consider a library, SMU, I would hope, would be on the list."

Bush was "interested," Hunt recalled, noting that Laura Bush, who sat on the SMU Board of Trustees, was a librarian. There was a "nexus there" that the president hadn't really focused on before, Hunt said.

Though Hunt and Bush were contemporaries, the two men didn't really know each other until Bush ran for governor in 1994. Six years later, Hunt was one of the biggest fund-raisers of Bush's presidential campaign. The oil scion had even closer ties to Cheney: The two served as SMU trustees together, and Hunt once served as a member of the corporate board of Halliburton, where Cheney was CEO from 1995 to 2000. Hunt, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story.

By the summer of 2002, while the school was leaning on condo residents to sell, Hunt continued to push the library project. On a sizzling day in August of that year, Hunt and Gerald Turner met with Bush at his ranch in Crawford. Harriet Miers, then-Assistant to the President and a former Locke Liddell partner, was also there. This time, the group spent 90 minutes discussing the details of the proposed library.

Toward the end of Bush's first term, as he was locked in a razor-tight re-­election campaign with John Kerry, SMU was finalizing its proposal. And, as the presidential campaign drew to a frenzied close, the school made arrangements to meet with Bush to talk with him again about the library — even if he lost the election.

Of course, there was only one problem. SMU hadn't secured one of the proposed sites. The school hadn't finished buying out all the residents of University Gardens.

Would SMU inform President Bush that people were still living at one of the potential locations for his library? SMU's attorney Leon Bennett would later say in a deposition that the school planned to tell George and Laura Bush "the opportunity to acquire those properties was just that, the opportunity to acquire it. And there was no reason to believe that the property was totally unavailable under any circumstances."
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SMU's purchase of its first units at University Gardens by April 1999, within weeks of Bush's announcement that he was forming an exploratory committee to run for president, seems at best coincidental, unless viewed through the prism of some of its former residents.

"SMU's plan all along — starting from the time Bush announced he was running for president, was to buy up our property, take it over and tear it down," Gary Vodicka says. "It was a hostile takeover, and they had to do it to get the Bush library."

Even if SMU didn't set its sights on the Bush library until after Bush's election, as it maintains, the school's Board of Trustees, which then included Dick Cheney and Ray Hunt, had already considered, during a December 1998 board meeting, how SMU could acquire University Gardens. It was simple, really. In a sworn deposition given two years later, Gerald Turner conceded that the board discussed that if it acquired 75 percent of the condo's residences, "we knew we could require the final 25 percent to sell their homes."

Three months later, SMU, through its real estate arm, Peruna Properties, began purchasing units at the complex; and by August 1999, angry residents felt their homes were in jeopardy, even after receiving assurances from SMU attorney Leon Bennett that SMU wanted to be a good neighbor and "contribute to University Gardens."

Just a few weeks after the Bennett meeting, the homeowners association board passed a new bylaw aimed at SMU, which prohibited any one entity from owning more than 10 percent of the total residences. In December 1999, the association sent SMU a cease-and-desist letter forbidding it to close on any more units. Two months later, Peruna Properties sued the homeowners association, which, in turn, filed a countersuit, claiming that SMU "has engaged in a covert operation to obtain the University Gardens condominium complex."

The association alleged that SMU's president and Board of Trustees set about to acquire a 75 percent controlling interest in the building, realizing that under the bylaws, it could pressure the remaining residents to sell. Part of SMU's scheme, the association claimed, was to place students in university-owned units to intentionally ruin the peaceful enjoyment of the complex by its elderly residents in an attempt to run them off.

If that was the intention, it worked. Many of the residents loathed their student-neighbors. In fact, when Bennett said at the meeting, "We hold our students to a standard of behavior," the crowd interrupted him with howls of derisive laughter.

"We know how SMU students are," one member of the audience told Bennett. "We have enough of them, and we don't want any more of them."

You couldn't blame the residents. In July 2000, an SMU-leasing administrator testified that SMU student-tenants had hung, on their balcony, the skin of a slaughtered lamb, a satanic mask and paintings stained with blood — "items usually used in devil worship," according to a police report. Other students were drunk and disorderly, observed urinating on flower beds at 2 a.m.

According to a March 2006 article in the Houston Press's sister paper the Dallas Observer, lawyers for University Gardens deposed SMU President Turner twice, seeming almost as interested in challenging the ethics of SMU's actions as its legal position: During Turner's second deposition, one attorney for the complex 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 replied, "We knew we could require the final 25 percent to sell their homes to us regardless of what their demographics might be."

Later in the deposition, a lawyer asked him if he "ever heard the phrase, 'Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's house'?"

Turner rightly noted that the passage came from the Book of Exodus. The lawyer then followed up by asking if any of the trustees, who had attended the December board meeting, ever worried that the school might look as if "we're coveting our neighbor's property."

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?"

After a year and a half of litigation, the parties settled their dispute: The homeowners association agreed to withdraw the 10 percent rule. In return, residents had the opportunity to sell to SMU at a rate of $75 a square foot — a price some thought was unreasonably low for a residential property with a Park Cities address.

The association felt it had little choice but to settle. Those residents who intended to sell within a few years anyway didn't want to lose SMU as a motivated buyer. And the homeowners association didn't exactly have the legal resources to match SMU's. "We couldn't afford a long court case," Leslie Davenport says. "We were just a little condo."

The settlement gave SMU the green light to proceed, and by 2005, the school owned over 75 percent of the complex. SMU now controlled the homeowners association that once took the university to court; 12 of its 14 members were SMU employees — only one of them even lived at University Gardens.

After the settlement, Pat Davenport felt pressured and sold her two units. As Leslie remembers it, the school told them that $75 a square foot was market value, but it would offer an additional $20 a square foot to get the deal done.

"They told us, 'You'll never get more than 75 a square foot if you don't sell to us now.' That's what they said," Leslie recalls. "And people like my mom couldn't afford to roll the dice."

Still, some former residents believe SMU treated them fairly. Stephen Norton, an accountant, closed on his unit in 2003 and says the school offered him "good, fair market value." But Norton, who has an MBA from SMU, notes that some of the older residents didn't understand that they could get more money simply by holding out and seeking an independent appraisal.

"They pulled the trigger too quickly. I urged them to wait, and they didn't," he says. "There was a broker for SMU that might have been strong-arming some of the residents. He did use the fear factor with some of the older women."

Norton adds that he, like other residents, knew that SMU was looking at the condominium as a possible site for the Bush library — it had been in the newspaper, after all — but that didn't affect his decision to sell.

Vodicka agrees that yes, many residents suspected that SMU wanted their property for the Bush library, but says they never knew for certain. And if they had known, they would have held out for more. "The owners would have been a lot more resolute. Instead, they allowed themselves to be run over."

In 2005, the law firm representing SMU, Locke Liddell, hired an engineering company to inspect the 40-year-old University Gardens. The engineers concluded that the complex needed about $12.4 million in repairs, a staggering sum for the residents who remained.

In June 2005, Peruna Properties sent a notice to the remaining residents: A vote was scheduled by the homeowners association to declare the condominium complex "functionally and economically obsolete." Also included in the notice was a proposed contract offering to purchase the remaining units for "$175 a square foot."

Those residents who attended the home­owners association meeting felt it was a foregone conclusion that their homes had a date with a wrecking ball. Lawyers for SMU grimly sat in the audience, perhaps anticipating future litigation. On the other side of the conflict, Vodicka videotaped the proceedings, ignoring a board member who asked him to stop.

The president of the association, Doug Hallenbeck, was employed by SMU as its director of residential life. He did not live at the complex. At the meeting, he cited the engineering report on the condo and presented one resolution declaring the complex obsolete and a second allowing the association to sell it.

One elderly board member suggested that the association was moving too quickly, and asked for a second and a third opinion from other engineering firms. The board voted down her motion, and the homeowners, almost all of whom were proxies representing SMU, passed a resolution to tear down the complex. Within a year, the complex was demolished.

Those residents who held out till the end, of course, got the best deals: Attorney Mark Stradley received $275 a square foot and convinced SMU to endow a $100,000 scholarship in the name of his late father, Fred Stradley, a graduate of the law school. Yves Gerem, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, received $315 a square foot.

"I escaped from communist country, literally escaped, to come to this kind of treatment? I don't think so," he said in an earlier deposition. "And I was absolutely determined that, you know, I will not accept the original SMU price, even if I had to die."

SMU attorney John McElhaney scoffs at the argument that SMU simply exploited a loophole in the condominium's bylaws, allowing it to strong-arm the people who lived there. "All of these [residents] bought condominiums and had to play by the rules," he says. "They all assumed the risks."

But Gary Vodicka, not so easily dismissed, refused to sell. On August 10, 2005 — two months after the SMU-controlled board voted to tear down his home — he filed a lawsuit against SMU, alleging that the school committed fraud as it went about amassing units in his condo complex.

"The SMU-controlled homeowners board let the condo's repairs and maintenance lapse," he says. "In an attempt to ruin the quality of life, they rented it out to SMU students. They didn't act in the residents' best interests and do what was best for the property; they did what was best for SMU's interest."
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The case against SMU — at least the legal one — may appear weak at first glance. After all, no one is claiming that SMU broke any law as it went about buying enough units at the University Gardens to take control of it and tear it down. The condominiums' governing documents allowed for this sort of exit strategy. Ironically, its purpose — as with other clauses like it — is to look out for the property owners.

No matter the strength of the case, the litigation has become a personal obsession for Vodicka, whose home in Coppell, northwest of Dallas, is stacked with many of the 300,000 pages of documents he has unearthed during the discovery process. The case file spans 20 thickly stuffed court jackets; the district clerk's case summary sheet is 38 pages long — an average case summary sheet is about three, according to the Dallas County District Clerk's Office.

"He has no law office, he has no secretary, he has a laptop and a cell phone," says McElhaney of Vodicka, both of whom are SMU law graduates. "He works all day on this case, and this is about all he does. This morning — at two in the morning — he was faxing things to me."

But Vodicka, who also maintains a law practice, claims that the school has tried to demonize him to take away attention from its underhanded land grab. As he discusses the case — and he can do so for hours without pause — Vodicka seems to nurse a grudge against SMU that no amount of money can cure.

Shortly after Vodicka filed his lawsuit in the summer of 2005, former resident and dentist Robert Tafel joined him as a plaintiff by intervening in the lawsuit. Tafel is represented by Larry Friedman, a controversial Dallas litigator known for his take-no-prisoners approach to practicing law.

Together they are making a novel argument alleging that SMU's condo-accumulating strategy was fatally flawed because once the school installed its own employees on the condo board, they had a fiduciary duty to the complex to be upfront with its residents.

As part of that responsibility, allege the plaintiffs, SMU had the obligation to inform the residents that the school wanted to purchase the property as a possible site for the Bush library, which would have given residents more leverage in negotiations with the university. The plaintiffs also allege that as a condo board, the SMU-dominated association bore the responsibility of maintaining the value of the property by not allowing it to fall into disrepair so it could be demolished.

"My client is saying that 'when SMU infiltrated the homeowners association, they had a duty to protect the interests of the homeowners,'" Friedman says. "They had a duty of absolute candor. They knew what the plan was, but they didn't tell the homeowners." The board kept its true intentions for the property a secret, he claims, so that it could low-ball the residents of University Gardens.

McElhaney dismisses Friedman's argument as "a bunch of sophistry — laced together with a lot of self-serving statements." His contention is that SMU was only able to gain control of the property because the condominium's own rules allowed it. And he says Vodicka, Tafel and the other former residents bought their homes knowing that at any time, they might have to sell against their will if a supermajority of the homeowners association decided to close down the complex.

Regardless of whether SMU prevails, the plaintiffs have succeeded in frustrating SMU and, even worse, the man it attempts to honor. In April, Judge Hoffman ordered that Bush testify in a deposition to answer the plaintiffs' questions about what he knew regarding the school's plans to take over the condominium complex. Although Hoffman's order was overturned by the 5th District Court of Appeals in Dallas, Vodicka, with characteristic resoluteness, vows to take the pretrial issue to the Texas Supreme Court.

Vodicka has also acquired sensitive documents during discovery that plaintiffs say depict the school's ruthless bid for the Bush library in its actions toward yet another property owner. In June 2004, as SMU was trying to purchase surrounding land to increase its options for library sites, its lawyers dispatched a letter to the owners of the neighboring strip center, Park Cities Plaza. At the time, SMU wanted to buy the shopping center, which runs perpendicular to Central Expressway. In its four-page letter, which threatened impending legal action, the school claimed that the shopping center was something akin to a modern-day Love Canal and that it needed to clean up its act.

"The Responsible Parties, therefore, are liable as generators of solid wastes and/or hazardous wastes, and as part and/or present operators of a treatment, storage, or disposal facility," read the letter, which was copied to the Environmental Protection Agency. "In its citizen suit, the PPI [SMU's real estate arm] will ask the court to order the Responsible Parties to conduct restoration and cleanup activities."

As McElhaney now admits, Park Cities Plaza, which includes a La Madeleine and a CVS pharmacy, was never the source of any solid or hazardous waste. He says the school worked on a separate project with an environmental expert, who initially concluded that contaminants were leaking from the property. He was mistaken.

As Vodicka sees it, the school's bare-knuckled letter, sent in the middle of negotiations over the sale of the property, was calculated to drive down the sales price — and is a part of a larger pattern of SMU's underhandedness. Says McElhaney, "That's just craziness on his part. Vodicka sees a conspiracy everywhere, but he's just wrong."

McElhaney and SMU may be particularly frustrated with Vodicka for digging into details of the sale of Park Cities Plaza. After all, it was Vodicka who, during discovery, forced SMU to disclose that it was Ray Hunt, the school's pre-eminent Bush-library booster, who quietly contributed $35 million to the private university so that it could purchase the property. The donation matched the largest contribution to SMU in the school's history.

SMU certainly wants to be done with this case and its plaintiffs, preferring instead to get on with building its George W. Bush Presidential Center, whose groundbreaking is scheduled to begin in 2010 and whose costs have been estimated at between $200 million and $500 million. Until recently, school officials have only made vague pronouncements about where the library will be located — at the intersection of SMU Boulevard and Airline Road — but now Patti LaSalle, the university's executive director of public affairs, says that according to the most recent plans, the campus of the 25-acre presidential complex will include the former location of the University Gardens. This might account for why SMU has offered each plaintiff $1 million to settle.

Of course, Vodicka seems in no mood to compromise.

"They illegally took my home from me, they illegally tore down the home complex," he says softly, as if talking to himself. "I would be satisfied with them rebuilding the entire complex, pay my attorney's fees, pay me my expenses and I'll move back in."

Though Vodicka's demands appear outlandish, many of the residents who sold to SMU will still be rooting for him. Even though seven years have elapsed since her mother handed school officials a letter that outlined her desperation at being forced to sell her home, Leslie Davenport tears up while talking about what her mother had to endure. On a summer afternoon at a fast-food restaurant just one mile from the vacant lot that was once University Gardens, Davenport thinks back to how her mom just wanted to stay in her condominium for the rest of her days.

"My mother and I fought this like tigers," she says. "Here you think you've planned your life. You can take care of yourself in your own place. And then something like this happens, and it blows up your whole world."

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