Hey, hey, KLBJ, how many lawsuits did you lose today?
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It wasn’t exactly Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed, but the scene at the Travis County district court had all the makings of a beat-the-odds classic. In this corner: Rollye James, controversial talk show host, formerly of radio station KLBJ-AM, and her attorneys, personal-injury specialist Steve Gibbins and State Representative Terry Keel. In that corner: the august Johnson family, KLBJ’s owners, and their attorney, Roy Minton, the consigliere of establishment Austin. The fight was over a comment James made on October 15, 1996, during her top-rated afternoon show. When a caller recalled a bumper sticker that read “Lee Harvey Oswald, Where Are You When We Need You,” James replied, “Unless that bullet passes through Al Gore first, I think we’re in deeper trouble.” Because making threatening statements against the president or vice president is a violation of federal law—even if you’re joking—the U.S. Secret Service launched an investigation (no charges were filed). Luci Baines Johnson, who chairs the board of the LBJ Holding Company, wasn’t pleased, and neither was her mother, Lady Bird; at their behest station manager Michael Crusham took James off the air for a few days and ordered her to make an on-air apology. Her specific language (“At no time would I advocate violence as a solution to dissatisfaction with a politician”) didn’t satisfy Crusham, so he fired her, refused to pay her for the six months remaining on her contract, and told the press that the reason wasn’t what she’d said but a “disagreement [over] the show’s direction.”
James sued for libel, arguing that Crusham’s characterization damaged her professional reputation, and also for breach of contract. When the case went to trial in late May, she testified that the audition tapes she’d sent KLBJ included a line about how disappointed she was that Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide hadn’t been assassinated. And she quoted Crusham’s response to the concerns she expressed about her politics not meshing with those of the Johnson family: “Luci doesn’t care how you make her money as long as you don’t care who she donates it to.” Although Crusham confirmed both of those points, Minton argued that the remarks about Gore and Bill Clinton simply went too far. Still, after less than a day of deliberation, the jury found for James—who is now a top-rated talk show host in Philadelphia—awarding her $535,000 on the libel claim and $170,000 in lost wages. “What she said shouldn’t have surprised the station,” says juror Bruce Bowman. “She was hired for shock value, but they couldn’t handle it.”
Poor Garry Mauro. First he runs for governor against a heavily favored incumbent. Then his one trump card, his friendship with Bill Clinton, is nullified by assorted sordid scandals. And now comes the menu that bears his name—sort of. In reliably Democratic Austin, the owners of Güero’s restaurant apparently wanted to boost their preferred candidate, so they named a dish after him: the Mauro Plato. “One small queso flameado broiled to perfection with your choice of one added ingredient,” reads the laminated list of nightly dinner specials. “Gary recommends the steak or bacon!” Of course, Garry also recommends spelling his first name correctly. Buck up, Mr. Land Commissioner. Things can only get better.