So Sue Him

At the end of the clammy corridor off the first floor of the Harris County Civil Courthouse, attorneys, law clerks, investigators and reporters line up to scan the glowing green computer screens that reveal lawsuits filed with the District Clerk's office. Each case is summarized in a couple of lines; someone with a fairly active legal life may command five or six lines, or even a whole screen. John Ballis lights up eleven screens.

Since 1981, Ballis has been embroiled in approximately 50 lawsuits. In most of those cases, he was the defendant.

Among the plaintiffs is Ballis's second wife, Lisa, who in May 1988 sued for divorce. In 1994, he was ordered to pay more than $86,000 in back payments for child support, as well as $20,000 in educational and medical expenses that he'd ignored.

Lisa's father, Chester Reed, also sued Ballis, though the suit was eventually dropped. Reed and several other investors in the Rivercrest subdivision, in which Ballis was involved, claimed that he was driving down the value of properties by not enforcing deed restrictions.

In two other suits, Ballis is accused of absconding with earnest money. In a 1987 case, a couple claimed that Ballis cheated them out of $20,000 they'd put up for a property along Pirate's Beach in Galveston. In the other, a fellow developer claimed that after he invested $30,000 in a shopping mall, Ballis made off with the money. In both instances, the suits were eventually dropped. Both case files -- like most Ballis-related files -- are littered with unserved subpoenas. Rather than getting their day in court, some plaintiffs were unable even to begin the proceedings.

Even when he's successfully served, Ballis has other ways of dragging out a legal proceeding. In 1986, he was sued by Stanley Jewell Enterprises. According to the suit, Ballis owed Jewell $30,000 for space leased at the Westheimer Plaza shopping center, and another $122,000 in commissions from two businesses at the center. Though Ballis appeared at a deposition hearing, he was considerably less than forthcoming with information. In response to dozens of questions -- including basics such as his name, his date of birth and his current address -- Ballis pleaded the Fifth Amendment, on the grounds that the information might lead to self-incrimination. Jewell was eventually awarded the $30,000.

Also notable among Ballis's list of creditors is Donald Trump. In September 1988, a New Jersey court ruled that Ballis owed $90,000 to Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino. In January 1990, Harris County went along with the ruling. But once again, court records indicate that Ballis couldn't be found to accept the court papers, much less to pay up.

Ballis is also the target of at least ten lawsuits filed by various tax entities such as the city of Houston, the state of Texas and the Houston and Alief school districts.

But most of Ballis's suits involve his failure to repay huge loans from Houston-area financial institutions. In 1986, Gibraltar Savings accused him of defaulting on two loans that together were worth more than $33 million. Gibraltar was able to foreclose on property of Ballis's worth almost $10 million, but the majority of the loan went unpaid. Likewise, South Main Bank sued Ballis for just under $750,000; Western Savings, for almost $550,000. None of the three institutions is still in business.

--Steve McVicker


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