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Leaving The Fold 01/16/03 

by Ted S. McGregor Jr.

One of the more unexpected events in the long saga of the River Park Square redevelopment project happened just before Thanksgiving, when the mall's manager of many years, Bob Robideaux, wound up leaving his post over a dispute with his boss, the mall's owner, Betsy Cowles.

In pleadings filed in Superior Court, Robideaux and his wife Karen are suing their former employer, seeking nearly $1.5 million in back pay and bonuses dating to 1994. First hired to oversee the mall in 1988 by Cowles' uncle, Jim, Robideaux has been considered a tireless advocate for his client's interests -- perhaps even overzealous, according to some attorneys involved, who partially blame him for the helping inflate the garage's price.

"Bob did not want this to go this way," says Robert Dunn, Robideaux's attorney in the matter. "It was horrible for him, but he could not afford to carry this part of the project."

Dunn says the developer made two settlement offers, including one for $650,000 just 15 minutes before he filed the lawsuit, which was one day after Robideaux had spent three days being grilled by attorneys gathering depositions for the federal litigation.

In October, after being notified that he would be terminated as mall manager in June 2003, Robideaux and Cowles sat down to address the back pay issue. In a Nov. 8 letter to Cowles, Dunn charges that "your response was flippant and insulting. To say the least, your callous retort that perhaps the issue was really a 'lifestyle problem' was ill-advised and not well received."

Dunn says that the "lifestyle" remark pushed his client to seek justice in the courts. In a Nov. 15 Spokesman-Review article, just after the lawsuit was filed, Cowles was quoted saying that Robideaux had been paid: "His compensation is outlined in contracts, and we have lived up to every speck of those contracts," she told the newspaper owned by her family.

Cowles' formal answer to Robideaux's complaint was not filed in time for review for this article, but what puzzles Dunn most is who is providing the answer for Cowles. Currently, the law firm of Witherspoon Kelley is defending Cowles in the matter, which has led Dunn to ask the judge to disqualify it as counsel. His grounds? Witherspoon Kelley has represented Robideaux in the past, including on compensation issues, and that creates a conflict of interest. And Duane Swinton, the lawyer at Witherspoon Kelley who worked most closely with Robideaux, could be called as a witness, says Dunn.

In the recent federal depositions of Robideaux and Swinton, both men's testimony was significantly limited, since they invoked attorney-client privilege on most conversations they had related to the mall project. Robideaux testified that his legal bills in the federal case are being covered by the mall, and that he is being personally indemnified by his now-former bosses. As the developer's agent throughout the garage deal, the legal fate of the Cowles family would seem to be intertwined with Robideaux's. Still, it's hard to imagine they'll want to keep paying Robideaux's legal bills in the federal case while he's suing them. This week, a Superior Court judge will hear arguments on whether Witherspoon Kelley can remain as counsel for the Cowles.

It gets interesting, though, when you consider the potential impact if Witherspoon Kelley is allowed to stay as counsel to the Cowles in their dispute with Robideaux. Would that mean there was no attorney-client privilege? And could both Swinton and Robideaux be re-deposed and asked all those questions they wouldn't answer? The potential fallout isn't yet clear, but some attorneys in the bondholders' suit are probably hoping that this little fight over back pay will spill over into their jurisdiction.

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