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Monster Case: Baylor Lawyer helping to stop illegal trade of dinosaur fossils from mongolia (Page 2)


There was a very dramatic incident you were involved in during the auction of the fossils. How did you prepare for all the possible scenarios that could occur?

In any case - but especially a high-profile matter where your client is a head of state - it is crucial to do everything possible ahead of time so there will be time to deal with the unexpected challenges that pop up.

President Elbegdorj's main goal was to stop the Tyrannosaurus auction so there could be a proper investigation to prove the ownership of the fossil. Paleontology experts had informed us that it was almost certainly from Mongolia, where exports of such items are illegal. Once an irreplaceable artifact like this is sold and possession is transferred, it is almost impossible to recover it.

From a legal perspective, a temporary restraining order was essentially the only tool available to stop the auction and allow time for proper investigation of this matter. From a practical matter though, I had several concerns that required careful planning.

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First, overnight I had to get the president's office to find an expert on Mongolian cultural heritage law who could identify the relevant legal provisions, and have them translated and certified back to me by the morning.

Second, even after the Dallas district judge signed the temporary restraining order (TRO) on Saturday morning, it was impossible to have the normal citation issued by the Dallas County district clerk until Monday - a day after the auction. I decided that, under the circumstances, it was crucial to show that I undertook every reasonable effort to inform Heritage Auctions of the TRO. Of course, their offices were closed, so I faxed a copy of the TRO to their office in Dallas, as well as to the auction venue in New York City. I then emailed copies of the order to every address I could find, and even obtained several read receipts, including one from the auction coordinator.

Third, even though I had evidence that Heritage Auctions was aware of the order, I lacked verification that they would comply with it. After all, even though it is a Dallas company, the auction was taking place in New York City. Therefore, it was possible that they could argue that the Dallas court lacked jurisdiction to stop the auction. I was confident that we would eventually win that argument, but I did not want the dinosaur fossil to be lost in the process. I flew to New York City that Saturday evening so I could be present to deal with whatever happened at the auction in person. I brought a videographer/photographer from my office with me, planning ahead to ensure that I had all necessary evidence to use in any future hearing necessary to enforce the TRO or to seek contempt of court sanctions. I also asked an attorney friend in New York City to attend the auction so I could have another set of eyes and ears on site.

Fourth, my group arrived at the auction site three hours before the dinosaur auction was set to take place. We split up and casually looked around the hall at various lots and spoke with different people. Our goal was to ascertain whether or not the dinosaur auction would proceed. Although there were a few hundred items being auctioned, the dinosaur fossil was certainly the big-ticket item and was even on display in the auction hall. We overheard a public conversation in which a representative of Heritage Auctions stated that they would proceed with the dinosaur auction, but make an announcement that it was subject to the outcome of the legal proceeding.

Fifth, once I had verification that the auction house did not intend to comply with the court order, I had to decide what to do next. As a litigator, if there is a dispute about an order or perhaps an applicable rule, it is common to call the judge and ask for a telephone hearing and an immediate ruling. I decided to call the judge on his cell phone. I explained the situation and the judge said something like, ‘Tell them it is an order, not a suggestion, and they better follow it unless they want to spend six months at Dallas County jail.' The judge seemed to doubt that Heritage Auctions would defy his order, but agreed to be available by phone immediately if he needed to explain this directly to the auction company.

Over the next several minutes, I decided that the best course was to let the auction company proceed as it had planned, and then interrupt the auction and get the judge on the phone. That way, the court would have no doubt as to the auction company's intent. I asked my videographer/photographer to capture everything that was about to happen.

When the auctioneer started to open up bidding, I phoned the judge, stood up, held the phone up in my right hand, and said something like, ‘I'm sorry to interrupt, but I have the judge on the phone, and he would like to explain to you how what you're doing violated his order.' There were gasps in the room because that auction crowd had certainly not seen anything like that before.

The confused auctioneer was told to proceed and some Heritage Auctions people asked me to walk with them to the back of the room. I was an invitee on their leased property, so I thought it was best to comply. They initially refused to speak to the judge, all while he was still on the phone and probably able to hear what was going on. When their lawyer finally got on my phone with the judge, I heard his side of the conversation and there was a lot of apologizing and backtracking.

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