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St. Mary’s University President Thomas Mengler told the board of trustees on Thursday that the university decided in 2007 not to renew Martin Phipps’ position with the School of Law following a complaint against the attorney. 

The action took place 12 years before the university entered into an agreement with a development group led by Phipps to explore relocating the St. Mary’s School of Law to a downtown site. 

Since 2019, however, no progress has been made on the effort, dubbed Project Legacy, and the agreement is set to expire March 31, according to a Jan. 28 letter Mengler sent to trustees, faculty, and staff. “The Board of Trustees will carefully consider any continued interest in exploring Project Legacy at its next meeting in February,” Mengler said. 

Phipps, one of the lead attorneys representing Bexar County in its $1 billion lawsuit against opioids makers, was recently arrested on a misdemeanor charge of telephone harassment following a December 26 incident reported by his former wife. The arrest came after several employees in Phipps’ law firm, including partner T.J. Mayes, resigned from the firm and filed abuse complaints against him. 

“The recent news reports about alumnus Martin Phipps are concerning,” Mengler said in his most recent letter to trustees, dated Feb. 11. “Just as concerning is the recent information discovered while looking into Phipps’ past employment record at the University.”

Mengler said news reports prompted the university to begin looking into Phipps’ history with the School of Law. The attorney served as a Board of Advocates coach from 1999 to 2007. 

During the spring 2007 semester, the administration received an “oral complaint” made against Phipps and began an investigation that “extended beyond the initial complaint.”

Mengler did not detail the nature of the complaint, but in the letter, he stated that as a result of the investigation, the School of Law did not bring Phipps back to work with law students on their courtroom skills. A spokeswoman for the university said she couldn’t elaborate on the letter’s contents.

Mengler was named president of the university in 2012. Prior to that, Charles Cotrell served as president from 1999-2012. The School of Law dean from 1998–2007 was Robert Piatt and from 2007–2014, Charles Cantú. 

The university named Patricia Roberts dean of the School of Law in March 2020.

St. Mary’s University Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The plan to relocate the law school was formalized in 2019 when the university signed a nonbinding letter of intent to explore the idea, an effort it undertook with Phipps Munoz Development. 

For several years leading up to the letter of intent, a group of alumni had begun making plans to move the school back to its downtown roots and make it more attractive to top talent. The group hoped to raise money and purchase land near the San Antonio Museum of Art for a new $200 million facility. 

Phipps, a St. Mary’s School of Law alumnus, commissioned a study to research the downtown move and had architects and engineers create renderings for the property, which sits near Phipps’ law firm and his rooftop bar Paramour. 

Local officials supported the effort and Mengler signed off on a letter of intent for the project in May 2019. Mayes, who joined the Phipps firm in January 2019 and resigned last month, served as a board member for the nonprofit Project Legacy.

A university spokeswoman said the St. Mary’s board of trustees was not aware of the 2007 investigation when the letter of intent with Phipps was signed. Leticia Contreras, chair of the board of trustees, did not immediately return a call for comment. 

Mengler told trustees Thursday he intends to notify Phipps Munoz Development that the university will not renew the letter of intent.

Meanwhile, the San Antonio Express-News reported that Phipps’ role in the Bexar County opioid lawsuit is in question. The newspaper obtained a letter in which county Judge Nelson Wolff authorized another attorney involved in the litigation, Mikal Watts, to take control of the case, which is filed in Harris County, until commissioners make a decision on the matter.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...