DALLAS — A Texan is trying to put a former president under oath and find out what he knew and when he knew it. But the issue isn't national security, political skullduggery or a sex scandal.
It's a property dispute involving George W. Bush's presidential library at Southern Methodist University.
Gary Vodicka, who was forced out of his condominium by SMU to make way for the project, contends the university coveted the property as the future site of the library even before Bush ran for the White House, and lied about its intentions.
On April 17, a Texas district judge ordered the former president to appear at a deposition to answer Vodicka's questions about the library's planning stages.
"I was humbled by the ruling," said Vodicka, 49, a lawyer who is representing himself in the case against SMU. "No one person is supposed to be above the law. And Bush is trying to act like he is."
The order has been stayed pending an appeal, but if it stands, it could be historic: No sitting or former president ever has been forced to testify in a state court proceeding, according to John Martin, one of Bush's attorneys.
Martin and an SMU attorney expressed confidence that the order would be overturned, saying the former president has no information of value to offer in the dispute.
"I think his deposition is irrelevant and an effort to make this case more important than it is," said Mark Lanier, the attorney for SMU.
The lawsuit centers on SMU's acquisition of University Gardens, a run-down, 40-year-old condominium complex across the street from the university.
SMU decided at the end of 1998 to begin buying up the approximately 350 units. Through a realty company called Peruna _ the name of the college's mascot _ SMU bought enough units to gain a majority of seats on the board of the homeowners association. It filled those seats with SMU employees and others affiliated with the university who did not own units or live at the complex.
The school eventually bought out all but two condo owners: Vodicka, who has four units, and another man with a single unit. About $800,000 from SMU is sitting in an escrow account for the two men to split if they want it, the SMU attorney said.
Citing problems with asbestos, the roof, mold and sewer lines, the school bulldozed the condos in 2006. Later that year, it became apparent SMU would be the site of Bush's library. The land upon which the condos once sat will be part of the library grounds.
Both sides agree on that much. They disagree on whether the school lied about its intentions and breached its legal duty to the other condo owners by letting the place fall into disrepair so that it could be torn down.
Vodicka alleges SMU officials began angling for the presidential library as far back as 1998, when Bush was governor of Texas and had not announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. He says the school acquired the condo property with the library project in mind.
"Bush floated the idea amongst his family, his close friends, his supporters, for probably a year before he made the announcement," Vodicka said. "So, yes. They knew."
Lanier scoffed at the accusation and the accuser, saying that Vodicka, "bless his heart, is a man of many suits." Vodicka, an SMU law school graduate who would not disclose his political affiliation, has been a party to more than a dozen lawsuits in Dallas County alone.
"It's not some big conspiracy," Lanier said. "There was no crystal ball-gazing that Bush would be elected and ultimately after eight years would give his library to SMU and we would need that property. That was not a consideration."
In his order, Judge Martin J. Hoffman said the former president "clearly has relevant and material information about the central issues of this case. He was involved in critical discussion about the presidential library at a time when SMU was purchasing units at University Gardens." But the judge rejected Vodicka's effort to compel Bush's wife, Laura, to testify as well.
There have been several instances in which a sitting or former president testified in a court proceeding, civil or criminal. President Thomas Jefferson gave a deposition in the treason trial of Aaron Burr, and Bill Clinton did the same in the criminal case against Whitewater defendant Jim McDougal. But Bush's attorney said all of those cases were in federal court.
In their appeal, Bush's lawyers wrote that the federal courts have generally held that presidential testimony is necessary "only where there are allegations that the president or someone closely associated with him engaged in improper conduct." And the lawsuit does not accuse Bush of any wrongdoing.
Officials hope to break ground on the project next year and open it in 2013.
Vodicka turned down $1 million to drop the case, according to SMU's Lanier, who said the lawsuit is simply an attempt to get more money out of the university.
But Vodicka said his case is about principle, and he is convinced he will get his property back _ even if the condos are long gone.
"I think I'll own my land by the time this is all over," he said. "I'm going to pitch a tent, play golf and set up an Obama lemonade stand."