A Citizenâs Lament - Was justice denied in a Fannin County court?
âIn June 2005, after helping construct a subfloor for Pat and Bob Egertâs new house in Ben Franklin, Bobby Fines, owner of Cedar Log Homes in Ivanhoe, owed me $530 for my work,â Starkey said. âI called his residence and Vicky Leggett, his partner, answered. I said, âIâd like to have my money.ââ...And Starkey was $1500 poorer because of a lawyer he shouldnât have needed and was still out the $530 allegedly owed him by Fines. See related article: Homeowner convicted for reporting Builder to TRCC & the Better Business Bureau
A Citizenâs Lament Was justice denied in a Fannin County court?
Story by S. I. BANISTER
On January 6, 1844, Charles Dickens took unscrupulous publishers to court for pirating his new book, A Christmas Carol.
âIn a triumph of legal sleight of hand,â Tim Halliman wrote in A Christmas Carol Christmas Book, the publishers âdeclared bankruptcy and disappeared, leaving Dickens to pay... court costs.... three times as much as he had made in an entire year as a newspaper reporter.... When his court costs were figured... A Christmas Carol had cost its author 470 pounds. That night, Dickens said he âslept as badly as MacBeth.'â
One man who could sympathize with Dickens is Don Starkey, a soft-spoken, hard-of- hearing widower from Brookston in Lamar County.
âIn June 2005, after helping construct a subfloor for Pat and Bob Egertâs new house in Ben Franklin, Bobby Fines, owner of Cedar Log Homes in Ivanhoe, owed me $530 for my work,â Starkey said. âI called his residence and Vicky Leggett, his partner, answered. I said, âIâd like to have my money.ââ
ââNo,â she answered, ââyou canât have it because you stole trees from me.ââ
âI told her Bobby gave them to me. She said they werenât his to give away-- that they were hers,â Starkey said.
Given Away, or Stolen?
âFines was buying a nursery and had already hauled off everything he wanted,â Starkey continued. âA friend was with me when Fines offered them to me. Fines said to take whatever I wanted. He told me he had already taken and sold thousands of dollars worth of plants. I took about 125 shrubs in April after Fines gave me directions to the nursery west of Roxton.â
âIn May  he asked me if I had gotten any shrubs, and I said âYes,ââ Starkey said.
âIn June, after I had filed in the Fannin County Small Claims Court for the wages he owed me, I received a letter from his attorney, Joe Moss. Fines was counter-suing, claiming I had stolen $4,000 worth of shrubs from him!â
Small Claims Court
After filing a claim for his wages with the Fannin County Justice of the Peace, Starkey got a court date. âBut I had to work out-of-town on that date,â Starkey said, âso I requested the date be reset.
I also asked if I could have someone represent me in court as I have difficulty hearing, and the Justice of the Peace secretary said âyesâ. At the hearing to reset the date, Bob Egert, a friend but not an attorney, accompanied me as my agent.
âThen Joe Moss [attorney for counter-plaintiff Fines], in front of the judge said that I needed to pay him $800 because he came to the hearing. The judge overruled Moss. Moss also stated that I could have only a lawyer represent me. The judge then said to me, âYou have to have a lawyer to speak for youâ.â
âI hired Mike Mosher, a licensed lawyer in Paris, and paid him $2000. If I won, Fines would pay for everything. I was willing to take that chance since there was a witness to Finesâ offering me the nursery stock.â
âOn May 15, 2006, the day of the trial,â Starkey said, âmy adult daughter was not allowed to enter the courtroom. She sat in the hall along with the witness. Mosher took me back in a room and said something to the effect that if we won, Moss would make it so Fines wouldnât have to pay.â
âMosher added âThis could go on for years. They want to settle.ââ
âMosher continued, âYou pay me, Fines pays his lawyer and we all go home.ââ
âI replied,âWell!â I said neither yes or no as I was taken back by his statement and wanted to think about it.â
According to Starkey, he and Mosher then returned to the courtroom, where the judge announced, âThey have settled.â About 15 potential jurors were then dismissed.
âI never agreed to a settlement! I felt railroaded at this point and didnât know what to do,â Starkey explained.
âMosher promised to give me $560 back out of the $2,000 I had paid him since he had not pleaded my case as I had hired him to do,â Starkey said. âAfter calling him several times, he returned $500.â
In a letter dated August 29, 2005 (a month before the October 12, 2005 hearing to reset the court date), Bob Egert had written, âDear Honorable Joe Dale: At Donald Starkeyâs request I am acting as his agent.... "
âI stood up at the beginning of court and identified myself as Starkeyâs agent,â Egert said. â Moss, Finesâ lawyer, protested, saying I would go to jail posing as an attorney. He asked me, âAre you an attorney?â I said, âNo.â He said, âThen you cannot represent Starkey. Iâll sue you if you act as a lawyer.ââ
According to Texas Government Code, Section 28, a licensed lawyer is not required. A person may represent himself or herself in a Small Claims Court or designate someone (called an agent) to speak on their behalf.
âI questioned why Moss wanted to toss me out of the courtroom,â Egert continued. âI was not posing as or claiming to be a lawyer.â
âJudge Dale supported Mossâs claim that I could not represent Starkey, although he had earlier said I could,â Egert added. âI had called the judge again prior to going that day and his secretary said, âYes, the judge said you may come [as an agent].ââ
Starkey, Egert, and a witness (who requests their name not be used) all claim that they heard Judge Dale tell Starkey he needed a lawyer.
Judge Joe Dale
Asked recently about the incident in his court, Judge Dale denied that he told Starkey he needed a lawyer. He remembered, however, a âsquabbleâ between Moss and Egert, but he couldnât recall what it was about.
We had to have everything in right perspective,â Dale said several times.
I asked Dale what he meant by his statement. He would not explain.
Upon being shown Egertâs letter notifying Dale a month in advance of the trial that Egert intended to act as Starkeyâs agent, Dale admitted that the letter was appropriate and in order. He had no further comments about it.
...of Bonham, attorney for Bobby Fines, does not remember asking $800 of Starkey that day in court, but he doesnât deny it.
âThereâs no telling what Iâll get up in a courtroom and say,â he said recently.
âMr. Egert appeared as an attorney in justice court. I appeared for Fines. The judge ruled that the amount of controversy exceeded whatâs allowed in a Small Claims Court and transferred it to the Country Court.
[County] Judge Hall wouldnât let him proceed,â Moss said.
But according to Starkey, Egert, and Dale, the court was presided over by Dale, and the amount of claims did not exceed the Small Claims Court limit of $5,000 as Moss claimed.
When asked how Egert acted âas an attorney,â Moss claimed that he was âsigning pleadings.â
Egert denies that, saying he doesnât even know what âpleadingsâ are. Judge Bud Skinner, Delta County Justice of the Peace, said, âIâve never heard the term âsigning pleadingsâ in a justice court.â
Moss added, âMosher [Starkeyâs lawyer] and I talked on the phone beforehand about a settlement. The court was going to be a foolish waste of time and money.â
...of Paris, attorney for Starkey, laughed when asked last week if he and Moss had a telephone conversation about a settlement prior to the court date. He denied it.
âI did what Starkey wanted. He made the decision to settle and we went fully briefed into the courtroom,â Mosher said.
âHe gained by settling,â Mosher added.
Starkeyâs story is a âcomplete mistake of factsâ according to Mosher. Asked if Starkey signed a statement directing a settlement, he said no. âYou recite the terms and itâs put on the [court] record.â
When reminded that a Small Claims Court keeps no record, he did not comment.
âThe settlement didnât benefit me at all,â he added.
And what about Finesâ claim that Starkey stole trees and plants âwithout his knowledge or authorization?â
A former employee of Fines-- and Starkeyâs aforementioned witness who asked that his name not be used in this story-- said he was present when Fines offered the trees to Starkey. âFines wanted to give me some trees too, but I didnât want any,â he said.
Fines also offered plants to Ladoyce Hervey of Mesquite, whose old homeplace adjoins Finesâ property in Delta County.
âFines told me he bought a nursery in Lamar County,â Hervey stated. âHe said to go over and get what I wanted. Since I was then president of a beautification committee for Delta County, I wanted some crepe myrtle trees.â
âThe roots had grown through the buckets into the ground,â Hervey said. âI put a chain around the buckets and then hooked it onto my truck and pulled them out. It was almost more trouble than it was worth, but I got 24 trees for Cooper. I was under the impression Fines wanted them out of the way.â
Fines also told a Cooper resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, to âtake as many [free] plantsâ as he would like. He did. The residentâs son-in-law went with him and took about 25 trees for himself too.
During the March or April 2005 meeting of the Ben Franklin Water Board at the Methodist Church, Vicky Leggett (Finesâ partner) announced to about 20 people present that they could have free plants from their nursery.
Fines made the same offer to Bob and Pat Egert of Ben Franklin. According to the Egerts (who got about 40 trees), Fines also told them he had previously sold $71,000 worth of plants.
And what about Leggett who, according to Starkey, had claimed that the trees were not Finesâ to give away but hers? In the filed counter-suit dated August 19, 2005, Moss wrote, âFines was and still is the owner of trees, shrubs, and plants in a nursery....â
However, the Public Information Office of the Texas Department of Agriculture said there is âno record of a nursery license for Bobby Fines.... penalties for operating a nursery without a license range up to $500.â
There is also no record of Fines suing any of the above people for stealing plants from his nursery. Of course, none of them except Starkey had a suit pending against him.
The End of the Matter
Playing on the words of Ronald Reagon in the biography Ronnie & Nancy (by Bob Colacello), has our county seat âbecome the seat of a buddy system that functions for its own benefit-- increasingly insensitive to the needs of the resident who supports it with his taxes?â
Mosher never once pleaded for Starkeyâs wages. He also did not defend Starkey against the counter-suit, in spite of many witnesses to the âgreat plant giveaway.â Without pleading or defending, he was $1500 richer, which refutes his statement that the settlement âdidnât benefitâ him âat all.â
Moss also supposedly profited, although he claims that Fines still owes him for his services.
Tax payers paid for potential jurors who showed up but werenât utilized.
Bobby Fines has at least a half-dozen judgments against him according to the Texas Attorney Generalâs Office.
Although the details are in dispute, one thing is undeniable: Egert was prevented from being Starkeyâs agent, which was his perfect right to be under the law.
And Starkey was $1500 poorer because of a lawyer he shouldnât have needed and was still out the $530 allegedly owed him by Fines.
Dickens could have related to that.