© 2020 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
PhippsTexturized.jpg
Obtained by TPR
/
Martin Phipps relationships with his St Mary's Mock Trial students blurred the lines between mentor and something darker. Many fomer team members have photos with Phipps like the one above where he poses on his hotel room bed with female students after a tournament. His time there resulted in his resignation, the loss of at least one marriage and the school changing its policies on policing the adjunct-led programs.

Why Did St. Mary’s Trust Martin Phipps With A Big Money Deal When He Couldn’t Be Trusted With Students?

by Paul Flahive

This story includes some strong language and descriptions of sexual situations that may be uncomfortable for some readers.

More than a dozen years ago Martin Phipps left St. Mary’s University.

Phipps was an adjunct professor teaching the Catholic university’s mock trial program for years. He was popular, charismatic and successful as a lawyer in San Antonio and as a coach to the students at the law school.

Former students say Phipps was forced to resign over an extramarital affair with a student. The school says it decided not to renew Phipps’ contract after an investigation into a complaint over his conduct.

Nevertheless, in 2019, the school and Phipps partnered to explore a land deal — the first step in a project to move the university’s law school downtown. Phipps, an alumnus of the school, committed to raise tens of millions of dollars for the project.

The land deal calls into question St. Mary's investigation of the incident and its willingness to re-engage with the wealthy alum it pushed out more than a decade prior.

Some former students familiar with the reasons for Phipps’ departure were surprised and, in some cases shocked, by news of the effort.

“I would have thought that what he had done, when he left, was enough for the school to want to distance themselves,” said Juanita Pelaez-Prada, one of the students interviewed in the investigation and a mock trial team member. “But that wasn't the case, the school reengaged with Martin knowing full well what Martin had been involved in.”

Phipps’ high-powered San Antonio law firm was also awarded a high-profile and potentially lucrative contract to sue opioid manufacturers on behalf of Bexar County in 2018. His firm also represents about a dozen other Texas counties in similar suits. But Phipps has been in the news since January when a group of resignations from his firm were made public. His former partner, TJ Mayes, called him “a serial abuser of women” with “homicidal fantasies.”

Related: Bexar County's Opioid Lawyer Arrested for Harassment While Allegedly on Drugs

St Mary's University
Paul Flahive
St. Mary's Sits on San Antonio's West Side but struck a potential deal with an alumnus to move its law school downtown, an alumnus it forced out for an inappropriate relationship with a student.

Subsequently, Phipps was arrested in February for telephone harassment of his ex-wife Brenda Vega. He is awaiting trial. The two were married for less than a month when Vega fled Phipps’ King William home and then the country in the middle of the night on the day after Christmas. Phipps’ arrest stemmed from an investigation launched after news reports of what some former employees called threats against the life of a San Antonio city councilman — Manny Pelaez-Prada — who is also the brother of former mock trial team member Juanita Pelaez-Prada.

Now questions exist about the business relationship between Phipps and St. Mary’s and why after showing him the door, it would entertain tapping Phipps to facilitate a multi-million dollar development deal.

Phipps declined TPR’s repeated requests for comment on this story.

The land deal was blessed by Tom Mengler, the schools’ new president and St. Mary’s Board when they entered into it in May of 2019. The nonbinding letter of intent with Phipps’ and his organization Phipps Munoz Development could have led to a new law school building downtown at a cost estimated in the hundreds of millions. One plan would have purchased a tract of land from the San Antonio Museum of Art. The deal focused on a parcel adjacent to the museum. Phipp’s set up the nonprofit Legatum Foundation to secure the land.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff signed a letter to SAMA supportive of a sale to St. Mary’s and Phipps.

Phipps reportedly said he could raise $20 million from alumni and another million a year to assist with the building. However, the deal didn’t get traction, according to a statement from St. Mary’s, and is set to expire at the end of March. After Phipps’ arrest and Mayes’ accusations became public, the school said it discovered the investigation dating back to Phipps’ tenure there as mock trial coach.

“Following an investigation that extended beyond the initial complaint (that sparked the investigation), the School of Law also undertook a review of the Advocacy program policies and procedures, putting in place safeguards for additional oversight,” said Tom Mengler in a letter to staff.

According to seven people with direct knowledge who TPR spoke with — from former students and administrators to current faculty — the investigation included help from multiple professors and administrators in the law school as well as a vice president at the university.

TPR has confirmed that while some of those involved in conducting the investigation left St Mary’s, at least four are still teaching at the school. It remains unclear whether officials vetted Phipps carefully before entering into what could have been one of the highest-dollar, highest-profile deals in St. Mary’s recent history.

Phipps’ final month at St. Mary’s Law school was acrimonious, turning students on the mock trial team against each other. Some who witnessed his behavior felt that the school hadn’t done enough.

“I remember feeling betrayed,” said Megan David, a Dallas-area attorney who was on the mock trial team in 2007. “I remember not wanting to go back to school for my third year, but I did. I really, really hated that school for a long time.”

Mock Trial

Martin Phipps coached St. Mary’s University Mock Trial team for eight years. The program teaches future litigators how to argue a case. The team — which traveled for tournaments — was successful in competitions across the U.S., and it was popular with students.

“I mean, credit where it is due — Martin taught me how to argue a case,” David said. “The number one thing I wanted to get out of law school is I wanted to learn how to try a case. And (Mock Trial is) really the only way you learn how to try cases.”

The team also connected students with law firms. Mock trial judges were often working lawyers, and their firms sometimes hired the young competitors. That was true for Phipps’ firm at the time Adami, Goldman and Shuffield, which hired several former team members.

Phipps — who at the time was a partner at the law firm — would teach on evenings and weekends. He selected the teams with help from former students. He created the strategy. He chose the tournaments the teams would travel to.

According to two former administrators he was given a lot of autonomy. Students and administrators who TPR spoke with admired Phipps’ devotion to it, giving up much of his personal life to be there.

“(Phipps) made a huge sacrifice in order to assist in the program,” said Bill Piatt, dean of the law school in 2007.

The team often would meet several times a week and work for several hours. Practices were more frequent as they approached a tournament.

“Mock trial was more than 50% of my time and even my social life. After practice some of us would go out. It was my group of friends. We traveled. It was stressful and a lot of work,” said David.

Another student who didn’t want to be named said it was the best thing he did in law school, and it meant a lot.

The school thought so too.

At the time, Piatt was “pouring money” into Mock Trial and Moot Court, or “external advocacy,” according to one former faculty member.

Piatt’s recollection was more modest. Adjuncts are relatively inexpensive, he said. He hired Phipps to coach mock trial and another working lawyer to coach moot court.

Piatt wanted to raise the profile of the school through the program and its national tournaments. He said it would gain goodwill in the legal community and help recruit students and faculty.

And to some extent it paid off. The teams won tournaments, and Piatt said students did enroll based on the advocacy program’s success.

st_marys_courtroom_credit_st_marys_university.jpg
St. Mary's University
During Bill Piatt's tenure, the school was able to raise money to build a courtroom. Piatt credits some of that fundraising success to the external advocacy program

As a result, Phipps — an adjunct who was rarely there during business hours — enjoyed a good profile at the school.

“Oh goodness, yes. Absolutely, yes,” said Reynaldo Valencia, then a faculty member at the school. Valencia compared it to a school going “all in on football,” with Phipps as the winning coach.

“Martin Phipps and the students put in a lot of hard work and many hours preparing for this competition. We are extremely proud of them,” said David Schlueter, the then director of external advocacy, in a 2004 university newsletter after a string of competition victories.

When Megan David joined the team in 2006, all she knew was this was the best way to learn how to be a lawyer. It was also tough training and at times included practicing against seasoned lawyers working in the county District Attorney’s office.

But David, Pelaez-Prada and other former students TPR spoke with for the story said Phipps could also be crude. He often made inappropriate sexual comments and jokes, sexually harassing the students during practice or at bars where he would take the students after practice and tournaments.

“I think the school officials, even students that weren't on the team knew it. He was just kind of a pervert. And that's just what you got,” said David.

For the most part David said they laughed off the comments. Female teammates often laughed off (and ignored) his competition advice too.

“He would say bend over to pick up a pen and stick your butt out or eye f*** the judge,” David said.

David said she never felt uncomfortable about it, but the team’s energy was sexually charged.

“He says things for shock value,” said another former student who asked not to be named.

There was a feeling that Phipps decided who made the team in part based on how attractive they were, especially among the females, according to three former students. Nothing was ever explicit, and former students who helped pick the teams argue that talent was the most important thing, but agree that the team was often filled with attractive people.

The team under Phipps — who by 2007 had run the program for eight years — also had a wilder side.

“The reputation was it being crazy and a lot of partying. And you know, I did a lot of partying in college. I was done with that. I was ready to do the law school thing,” said David. “I was still young, I still like to go out, and if Martin (Phipps) was going to take us out for drinks and dinners and house parties, great, but I’m not — you know — stripping at any parties.”

Over the years Phipps hosted several parties at his house. David said she was told that at one a female team member removed all her clothes. Though David didn’t witness the nudity herself, two former students who asked not to be named confirmed it. And they said it had happened a few other times.

“Everyone was an adult,” said one former student. “If they wanted to take their tops off and jump in the pool, that is up to them,” he said.

The parties David would attend the following year were mundane, and she questioned if the pool party incident had ever happened… until one night, after a tournament in another city, something very similar occurred.

The teams always stayed in expensive hotels, and Phipps was constantly paying for drinks and dinners, said several former students.

“(When celebrating) there was an endless supply of alcohol," said one.

After this particular tournament, Phipps and a group of students were relaxing in the hot tub when David saw one student remove her bathing suit.

“So it was the environment — his students are just naked in front of everyone,” said David. “And Martin, you know, he kind of encouraged it. He certainly didn't discourage it.”

It was Phipps’ behavior on these trips that would later be investigated by St. Mary’s and contributed to the end of his marriage to Melanie Phipps.

Melanie helped Martin coach the team and she was well liked by the students, but her presence was also an example of Phipps’ relationships with students. Phipps had also coached Melanie as a mock trial student six years prior. His relationship with her as a student caused his first marriage to break up, according to several former students and a friend of Martin Phipps.

We all knew he had been her coach,” said David. “So fast forward (to 2007) and now I’m witnessing the same behavior with another student.”

BarPhippsTexturized.jpg
Obtained by TPR
Several mock trial members told TPR Phipps would take students out to bars, hold parties at his house, and put the students up in nice accommodations on tournament trips. Pictured above is one trip that included left to right: Juanita Pelaez-Prada, Megan David, Jessica Baruch and Martin Phipps in a night out after a tournament.

“It Was Pretty Brazen”

Rumors about Phipps having an inappropriate relationship with a student percolated among the team in the fall of 2006.

That school year, Pelaez-Prada, David and others traveled to Atlanta for a tournament. Melanie Phipps had stepped back from her duties with the team that year to care for her dying mother. Melanie’s mother would pass away in the summer of 2007, according to an obituary in the Victoria Advocate. Melanie Phipps did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

According to David and Pelaez-Prada, a student on the team named Jessica Baruch — who wasn’t competing in the Atlanta tournament — traveled with the team. That fact alone was unusual, according to David and Pelaez-Prada. More unusual, though, was that Baruch was assigned her own room. Baruch didn’t respond to emails or calls from TPR.

Later, in the spring, a small group traveled to Houston for a tournament. Baruch was competing this time. She was again assigned her own room, while other team members shared rooms. When asked about it, they said Baruch told them it was because she might be getting sick.

After the successful tournament, the team went out to the bars downtown.

“And they (Phipps and Baruch) were all over each other,” said David. Pelaez-Prada and a third former student who didn’t want to be named confirmed the two were kissing at various bars and being affectionate publicly.

“It was pretty brazen. We saw her at several points come out of his room (that night),” said David.

The group that witnessed the affectionate behavior decided to keep quiet about it. They wanted to avoid choosing between the loyalties of their coaches, Melanie and Martin Phipps.

Eventually, however, Melanie Phipps began asking questions. She emailed team members about an unusual number of rooms being rented for recent tournaments, according to David.

“She said ‘I want everyone to write down and email me who roomed with who at what tournaments,’” David recalled.

People on the team were talking.

Finally, things came to a head.

“There needs to be a meeting tomorrow at 2 p.m. at my office in front of the conference rooms,” wrote Martin Phipps in an email to students that TPR has reviewed. “I plan to discuss all issues concerning the team and EAP (External Advocacy Program) along with any speculation.”

“I can only hope that my coach will do the right thing and accept responsibility for his actions and remedy the damage that has been done”

More than 20 mock trial students attended the meeting according to Pelaez-Prada. It was fraught with emotion.

“I sit down, and he (Phipps) says his wife is there, and she is crying,” said Pelaez-Prada.

While his wife looked on, an angry Phipps accused some students of lying and trying to break up his marriage.

“He stared at me the whole time, and while he never accused me directly, it was clear that the ‘someone’ that was supposedly making up rumors and trying to hurt his wife and ruin his marriage was me,” said Pelaez-Prada.

As uncomfortable as that meeting was, it was nothing compared to what followed. Martin and Melanie met with Pelaez-Prada and David one-on-one.

David didn’t attend the group meeting due to a class conflict. But she described the meeting with Melanie and Martin Phipps.

“It was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life,” she said. “He just let Melanie believe we were liars.”

Martin sat through the meeting with Melanie and Megan David, head down, saying little. For 30 minutes David recalls Melanie interrogating her, accusing her of lying, and asking the young woman to resign from a forthcoming internship that Martin had helped her get months earlier.

“She said, ‘You need to resign today from this firm. They don't want a liar working here,’” David said.

In the meeting David said nothing in response. She sat there and took it, thinking there was nothing she could say that would improve things.

“I’m not going to give up my job because Martin screwed his student and lied to you (Melanie) about it,” she told TPR. David took the job anyway.

When Phipps and his wife met with Pelaez-Prada, she said it was a complete reversal of his attitude in the group meeting. Pelaez-Prada said Martin Phipps said he had “acted inappropriately” with Baruch on recent trips.

Pelaez-Prada said she cried throughout the meeting and felt as if she had done something wrong, but couldn’t figure out how.

Afterwards that shame she felt while sitting in the group meeting turned to anger. Her coach had just insinuated to her team that she and David were liars, that they were trying to break up his marriage, and he did it that way, “Because he knew we wouldn't call him out in front of everybody,” said Pelaez-Prada.

She felt betrayed by her coach. In an email to Phipps — part of a chain of emails TPR has reviewed — Pelaez-Prada said Phipps had tried to fix his reputation by tarnishing hers. She asked him to email the entire team to tell them publicly what he had told her privately.

“I can only hope that my coach will do the right thing and accept responsibility for his actions and remedy the damage that has been done,” she wrote.

Phipps declined.

“We disagree that your reputation has in any way been adversely affected. This issue has

been addressed and we consider it closed. It is time for everyone to move on,” he responded.

Within weeks Phipps would be gone.

The Investigation

While it isn’t clear who made the complaint, the drama of Phipps’ group meeting was the final straw for someone.

David Schlueter was in charge of External Advocacy — technically Phipps’ boss — and he interviewed several students, including Pelaez-Prada and David. While he declined to comment for this story, TPR spoke with seven people with knowledge of the investigation including several current and former administrators, faculty and former students.

The investigation divided the team, with many blaming David and Pelaez-Prada for the situation. Suddenly, the two said, they felt like outcasts. According to the teammates, several people associated with the team pressured them to say nothing.

“I didn't want Martin to hate me, and I didn't want my fellow mock trial team members to blame me for hurting Martin,” said Pelaez-Prada.

Both David and Pelaez-Prada described a hard choice with little support from the school.

“There were implied threats,” said David. “It’s why I almost dropped out.”

Pelaez-Prada said she was threatened by a vice president of the school who said St. Mary’s would “stand by its professor” and that any hearing would be “very uncomfortable” for her.

“I'm scratching my head not understanding like, ‘I don't even understand who's the good guy. Who's the bad guy?’” she said.

She said the call convinced her the University was on Phipps’ side.

But Pelaez-Prada told the vice president that many students had proof of Phipps’ inappropriate behavior: Pictures. And once she mentioned the pictures, everything about the vice president’s demeanor on the call changed.

Before the controversy erupted, when rumors about Phipps were still unconfirmed, the students competed in Atlanta. After the team’s victory, Pelaez-Prada said Phipps asked everyone on the team to meet him in his room to celebrate. There, the team drank and celebrated. All the while, multiple students snapped pictures.

PXL_20210325_164318318.MP.jpg
Paul Flahive
St. Mary's University Campus

The pictures, which TPR has reviewed, look like ones you would see in any 20 something’s photo album titled “Parties” — photos of mostly women, drinking, laughing, lounging on beds and having fun. The big difference is that a salt and pepper haired 37-year-old appears in several photos. Phipps — coach and teacher — looks into the camera while a bevy of young women lie around him on a bed. The ones where he is absent, he photographed, Pelaez-Prada said. Many are of his female students drinking on his bed. One looks like a pillow fight. Some are shots of a student in suggestive poses.

“And then Jessica (Baruch) is on the bed and making all sorts of sexy Victoria's Secret type photos,” said Pelaez-Prada.

When Pelaez-Prada mentioned the photos, the conversation changed quickly. The administrator asked her to describe them and then rang off.

“Five-to-ten minutes later I get a call and he (the administrator) tells me that Martin has decided to resign,” she said.

St. Mary’s University declined TPR’s repeated requests for comment about its 2007 investigation and additional questions around its attempted land deal beyond its first statement. According to the school, Phipps' contract was not extended past the spring 2007 term.

While David and Pelaez-Prada felt the school didn’t do enough for its students, others present at the time saw it differently.

“I am rather proud of how the school handled it,” said Reynaldo Valencia — a law professor at the time who Pelaez-Prada describes as an ally. “It was dealt with very quickly.”

From his perspective, a complaint was filed, and in a matter of weeks an adjunct professor was gone. Valencia does not recall hearing about the intimidating call Pelaez-Prada had received. But he said the school ultimately did the right thing despite pressure from Phipps’ backers.

“All of his supporters started pushing back, we were all getting lobbied,” he said.

More than a dozen alumni of Phipps’ program even came to the school and stood outside the law school building in solidarity with their former coach as his future was discussed inside.

Valencia was proud that St. Mary’s didn’t buckle.

Valencia, who is now dean of another law school said Phipps may have been able to behave the way he did because it was largely off campus. As an adjunct, he was rarely around other professors, and as far as Valencia knows, students hadn’t complained before.

According to interviews with former students, Phipps’ crude behavior went back years.

“I heard no complaints from any of our law school community,” said Bill Piatt, dean of the law school during Phipps’ tenure. “I understand there might have been some complaints lodged across campus, but nobody raised them directly with me and I never had knowledge of anything going on like that.”

Piatt was transitioning from being dean to a law professor in the spring of 2007, and he said he wasn’t involved in the Phipps investigation. It was instead handled by an associate dean. He said he didn’t even know until TPR told him what the allegations had been. He said if he had heard about the parties and behavior he would have done something.

“These are all a whole string of hypotheticals, but if it had occurred and if it had been brought to my attention, I would have immediately taken action,” he said.

Martin and Melanie ended their marriage in September of 2007. Phipps would marry his student Jessica Baruch the following year. The two would have two children together before divorcing in 2013.

A few years after the incidents, after graduating and starting to practice law, Megan David said she was arguing her first case.

“When I had first walked into the courtroom, the judge had thought I was an intern,” she said.

After it concluded, the judge asked her how long the young lawyer had been practicing and she told him this was her first case. She said he was surprised.

“And he complimented me and said something to the effect of, well, whoever taught you how to try a case, you should thank them. I've never forgotten that,” she said.

She texted her former coach, Melanie the compliment and the thanks.

SAMA.jpg
courtesy San Antonio Museum of Art
Phipps offered to purchase an undeveloped parcel of land owned by and adjacent to the San Antonio Museum of Art (pictured) with the intent of developing it with St. Mary's University. While the deal had significant support from school, city and county officials, it was rejected.

The Land Deal

Moving the St. Mary’s law school downtown from San Antonio’s West Side has been talked about for years. The argument has been that it would better integrate the school’s more than 700 students into the working legal community which is concentrated in the downtown area. The project could cost the school more than $200 million.

“We believe there are many benefits for the School of Law and our students being located in the heart of San Antonio’s legal, judicial, government, and business communities,” wrote Tom Mengler, president of St. Mary’s, in a letter to staff in late January.

Phipps pushed the idea in a number of ways. In addition to his pledge to raise millions for the project, he spoke of the project often, according to former employees, and created the nonprofit the Legatum Foundation to facilitate it. The project was assigned to TJ Mayes, Phipps’ former law partner who had connections inside the city and county government.

According to two former administrators, St. Mary’s was quietly working on Project Legacy, its name for the law school move, possibly as long as a year before the December 2019 media reports came out. They said the plan was a closely guarded secret in Mengler’s office.

Several former students and faculty who knew about Phipps’ 2007 departure were surprised when news of the deal broke. Phipps was once again involved in a high-profile law school endeavor.

Others were more concerned with the logistics of the move — how they would find parking and easily access the school’s West Side law library.

Many faculty and administrators who have passed through the law school since Phipps coached there, so it is possible Project Legacy could have started without anyone in the Law School that knew about the investigation being consulted.

“A lot of water has passed under that bridge since then,” said one former administrator.

After years of ill feelings towards the school, Megan David recently donated a small amount of money to sponsor an event in 2020. As a result she got a call from Patricia Roberts, the recently hired dean of the law school. David recalled the conversation. Roberts thanked her and asked her about her time at St. Mary’s. David said she had spent much of her time on mock trial.

“Oh, who was the mock trial coach then?” asked Roberts.

“Martin Phipps,” she replied.

“Oh,” Roberts said. “Never heard of him…”

Paul Flahive can be reached at paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.