Bucking the System
Erik Moebius Faces Possible Disbarment
The disbarment pro-ceedings against Austin lawyer Erik Moebius should make even the proudest barrister blush. Accusations of fraud, corruption, and insanity have been thrown around like rice after a wedding. Moebius is accused by the State Bar of Texas of malpractice and numerous counts of filing frivilous pleadings. Meanwhile, Moebius says the Bar is protecting a corrupt judiciary and he has accused more than a dozen judges of impropriety.
Moebius' case, which goes to trial next Monday at the Travis County Courthouse in front of Judge Kent Sims, involves some of the most powerful lawyers and judges in Austin. Attorney Roy Minton is a central figure in the case, as is Travis County District Court Judge Pete Lowry. And if even a tenth of what Moebius is claiming is true, then he has uncovered a massive scandal.
A nervous, fast-talking 44-year-old native of Connecticut, Moebius has turned his fight with the Bar into a crusade. An assistant attorney general for five years and now a solo practitioner, Moebius perceives the fight to be him against the world. He may be right. But then again, he may simply be delusional, tilting at windmills.
Is this man crazed, and unfit to serve his clients? Perhaps. It depends on the listener. Some of his theories can be called "eccentric." A simple question about the date of a deposition can launch him on a 15-minute explanation of how his opponents are bilking insurance companies for millions of dollars. But some of his other theories are more serious, and of greater concern to the Bar. For instance, Moebius is convinced that judges, attorneys, and the Bar are all involved in a conspiracy to hide massive judicial corruption, and -- because he has uncovered their wrongdoing -- they are intent on discrediting and disbarring him. Moebius' accusations and dogged persistence have earned him dozens of powerful enemies and a cold shoulder from the press. But Moebius remains convinced of the veracity of his theory. "Political disbarments are a fact of life," he says.
The facts behind the disbarment proceedings are complex. But most of them revolve around Abelia Garcia, who at one time was represented by a personal injury lawyer from Austin named Michael Wash. Garcia's son, Herman, sustained a permanent brain injury in a car accident and Garcia hired Wash to represent her in a lawsuit against two highway contractors. And even though the defendants agreed to settle the case for $90,000, Garcia never got any money. She then hired Moebius, who claimed that Wash stole the money from Garcia.
Her case and others like it convinced the Texas chapter of the League of United Latin America Citizens (LULAC) that Moebius had stumbled across a scheme of judicial corruption. LULAC has accused the Bar of trying to disbar Moebius because he was fighting too hard for Garcia's rights. LULAC has sent several complaints to the Bar and on September 16, the group sent a 17-page letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, claiming that the judicial misconduct has been "augmented and assisted by what appears to be overtly corrupt and sometimes shocking activity by the Texas State Bar."
LULAC also tried, and failed, to intervene on Moebius' behalf in the disbarment case. But the group hasn't quit. It is reportedly working to get LULAC's national leaders to request a special prosecutor for Moebius' case, and the group has also been sending documents to the U.S. Department of Justice, including the criminal tax division and the public integrity section.
Moebius alleges that questionable judicial actions occurred in other cases that he worked on, including one involving an Austin landowner named Eli Garza. Readers may remember him -- he was one of the first plaintiffs to file a lawsuit against the City of Austin after the Save Our Springs Ordinance passed.
On October 27, 1989, Garza's condo near the Lost Creek municipal utility district (MUD) burned to the ground. The fire at Garza's condo spread to three adjacent condos. All were a total loss. One eyewitness interviewed for this story, who ran inside Garza's condo immediately after the fire started, said the fire was burning in several different locations on two different levels. The owners of the adjacent condos believed that Garza intentionally set the fire and they retained Moebius to represent them in a civil lawsuit against Garza. The judge at the jury trial, which began in June of 1992, was Travis County District Judge Jeanne Meurer.
Moebius contends that Meurer did not let him enter evidence that Garza was in financial difficulty. According to Moebius, Garza's bank loans, totalling $400,000, had been called the same day the fire occurred in his condo. But Meurer didn't let that evidence into the trial. Nor did she let the case go to the jury; instead, she directed a verdict in favor of Garza. Bill Bucy, a retired oil field worker and one of Moebius' clients who lost his home in the fire said, "My opinion is that [Garza] started it."
In another example given by Moebius of judicial misconduct, the attorney tells of meeting Keith Bell, an Austin psychologist who possessed letters written by Judge Lowry to Dorothy Dillon Mathews, Bell's ex-wife. Bell showed Moebius a letter which Lowry wrote to Mathews in 1990. It said, "I think you have acknowledged that you need psychiatric help and it is so obvious that you do. If you want that, I can help you get it in a way that Keith [Bell] will never know so it won't be used against you." Lowry, who had been romantically involved with Mathews, was apparently offering to hide evidence from the court.
Since finding the letter from Lowry to Mathews, Moebius has distributed dozens of copies of it to judges, journalists, and other lawyers. He has also distributed another letter written by Austin investment attorney Michael Kentor in 1991.
Kentor's letter appears to corroborate that Lowry, who was the presiding judge of Travis County at the time, was tampering with cases. "Judge Lowry had indicated to my wife earlier in the year that he could and would direct a case that she had pending then in the District Courts to a Judge who would be most sympathetic to her case... Subsequent to that initial conversation, the case went to trial and a decision favorable to my wife was issued."
In an interview with the Chronicle, Kentor called Moebius' allegations of misconduct "a real non-event. There is no story." Kentor considers Moebius "a nut," but he doesn't defend Lowry either. "He doesn't always use the best judgment when conducting his love life," Kentor said. Lowry did not return repeated phone calls from the Chronicle.
Odd circumstances surround Roy Minton's role in the disbarment case. Minton has represented Eli Garza for more than three decades. And his firm, Minton, Burton, Foster & Collins, used to employ Evelyn Wood, a legal secretary who also happens to be Moebius' wife. Wood worked for Martha Dickie, one of Minton's partners. In sworn testimony, Wood testified that on November 4, 1992, Minton and Dickie summoned her to Minton's office. Minton told her that he had talked to both Lowry and Meurer that day. Minton and Dickie then told Wood that her husband had mental problems. Wood said, "Following that conversation, it was my understanding that if I was able to talk Erik into going to see a psychiatrist, that Mr. Minton would convey that information to Judge Lowry and he would try to convince Judge Lowry to hold off on filing any kind of grievance against Erik."
A month later, Mathews filed a grievance with the Texas State Bar against Moebius, alleging that he was mentally impaired.
Except for the fact that his wife now works for attorney William Rittenhouse, Moebius probably wouldn't have been able to find a lawyer to take his case. Rittenhouse agreed to take Moebius' case out of allegiance to Wood, and he acknowledges that Moebius probably won't be able to pay him for his services.
Representing the Bar, on a pro bono basis, is Mike McKetta, of the law firm of Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody. Readers may recall that it was McKetta, along with Minton, who represented the plaintiffs in the Quick et al. v. City of Austin lawsuit last year. The plaintiffs prevailed, invalidating the Save Our Springs Ordinance.
Moebius believes that in both the Abelia Garcia case and the Eli Garza case, judges, attorneys, and insurance adjustors conspired to defraud their clients and the insurance companies by getting the judges to render decisions that are difficult to appeal. The lawyers then tell their clients and the insurance companies that the cases were lost and pocket large amounts of cash. Moebius calls it "reserve fraud."
It's a good story. And if it's true, it's one of the biggest ongoing scams ever perpetrated. Moebius has a lot of circumstantial evidence which, when considered together, could point to a conspiracy. Unfortunately for Moebius, he simply doesn't have any proof. He hasn't uncovered a paper trail to corroborate his story. No cancelled checks, no evidence of Swiss bank accounts, no evidence of payoffs, and no repentant sinners willing to back up his allegations. After spending 10 weeks reviewing a foot-high stack of court documents, I cannot find one example of judicial misconduct or fraud.
Meanwhile, the Bar -- which has been after Moebius for two years -- is loaded for bear and they want to be rid of him once and for all.
So why should anyone care about an attorney who has garnered little publicity, only a smattering of supporters, and a legion of powerful enemies? Perhaps no one should. The Bar takes disciplinary action against hundreds of lawyers every year. And Moebius has repeatedly shot himself in the foot. In fighting for what he perceives to be the best interest of his clients, he has destroyed his reputation and his law practice. Perhaps the Bar is doing all citizens a favor by pushing for his disbarment. Even Moebius thinks the future is bleak. "I am certain I'm going to be disbarred," the attorney said last week following a pre-trial hearing on his case.
But Moebius' opponents haven't fully acquitted themselves, either. On October 9, Minton said in a deposition that his law firm has represented several district judges, including Meurer, and never billed them. In lieu of presenting bills for payment, the firm gave the judges free legal services as a "campaign contribution." While these contributions may be perfectly legal, they do nothing to dispel the notion that Minton's firm and other wealthy firms curry favor with district judges through a system tainted by money and the "good old boy" network.
Minton's statement is only one smelly sock in a basket-full of dirty laundry that will likely be aired at Moebius' jury trial, which may last three weeks.
Moebius has demonstrated either excessive courage or excessive foolishness in his battle against the judicial system. And he is fighting a system polluted by money. Minton's statements show that lawyers with lots of money can gain special access to judges on the bench -- access that may result in favorable judgements for their clients. The best thing that could come out of this case is not an analysis of Moebius' mental health, but a serious examination of our judicial system. Crazy or not, Moebius has raised questions about the erosion of justice that we should not, and cannot, ignore. n