This article was published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Baylor Line and written by Carol Christian.
ROBERT PAINTER’s law career—and friendship with Mongolia’s president—have led him into the shadowy world of fossil smuggling.
Four seconds after the bidding started on a seventy-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton smuggled out of Mongolia, Robert Painter, JD ’99, stood up with his cell phone in his raised hand.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” the Texas attorney said, walking toward the front of the room at a New York auction house. “I have the judge on the phone.”
Painter was referring to Texas state District Judge Carlos Cortez in Dallas, who had signed a temporary restraining order to stop the auction of the nearly complete skeleton from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, the source of many of the world’s dinosaur fossils. Cortez signed the order at Painter’s request because the sale organizer, Heritage Auctions, is based in Dallas.
In a story that reads like a Hollywood script, Painter plays a leading role in keeping a rare fossil from falling into private hands. It’s a story that’s been covered by the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and the Houston Chronicle, among others.
An unusual friend
By Painter’s own description, his part in this unlikely saga is a story of relationships—a decade-long friendship with Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and lasting ties to Baylor classmates. It’s also a testament, he said, to skills learned at Baylor Law School.
At the auction on May 20, 2012, Painter sat through bidding on more than two hundred small fossils, rocks, and other geological finds while waiting for the day’s featured item, the skeleton of a dinosaur known as Tarbosaurus bataar, or T. bataar, measuring twenty-eight feet long and eight feet tall. A smaller cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex, the species is also called Tyrannosaurus bataar.
When Painter intervened to stop its sale, the president of Heritage Auctions, Greg Rohan, walked toward him, the two briefly facing off before a roomful of about one hundred people. A security guard told Painter to leave. The auctioneer’s patter wound down in the background, and the bidding, which had started at $850,000, stopped at $875,000. Including Heritage’s fee, the price for the T. bataar was $1,052,500.
Meanwhile, Painter, a forty-two-year-old father of four whose law practice is mostly catastrophic personal injury and medical malpractice cases, found himself on a Manhattan sidewalk, being interviewed by a New York reporter amid protestors with signs calling for the protection of Mongolia’s cultural heritage.
The skeleton’s sale would be canceled in June, after the U.S. government seized the bones through a legal action titled “United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, a/k/a Lot 49315 listed on page 92 of the Heritage Auction’s May 20, 2012 Natural History Auction Catalog.
“There was an arrest warrant, signed by a judge, to go and arrest the dinosaur,” Painter said. “That’s something you don’t see every day.”
The consignor who had placed the skeleton for auction, Florida resident Eric Prokopi, filed a claim to it, which opened him to investigation. Although it’s unknown who removed the T. bataar from Mongolia, Prokopi pleaded guilty on December 27 in federal court in New York to two counts of smuggling and one count of conspiracy.
Prokopi is scheduled to be sentenced in April. He could get up to seventeen years in prison for his part in a scheme to illegally import dinosaur fossils from their native countries, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said in a news release.
The T. bataar is scheduled to return to Mongolia, probably in May. Painter, who has visited Mongolia at least twenty times since 2004, plans to be there for the homecoming.
To Baylor and beyond
Reared in Virginia and West Virginia, Painter earned a degree in biology from West Virginia University and attended medical school at Marshall University on a U.S. Army scholarship.
Rather than finishing medical school, he decided to study law but first served two years in the Army as a second lieutenant, from 1994 to 1996.
Baylor Law School accepted him for the 1996 fall quarter, but he delayed starting until February 1997 to work for Senator Bob Dole’s presidential campaign as national chair of Young Americans for Dole. He graduated with his class in July 1999 by taking off just one summer, when he clerked for three major Houston firms—Fulbright & Jaworski; Baker Botts; and Liddell, Sapp, Zivley, Hill & Laboon.
Foreshadowing his involvement with world leaders, as a law student Painter proposed to Baylor’s president at the time that the school invite former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to speak.
“Lady Thatcher was someone I had worked with on numerous occasions prior to law school through some of my political activities around the world,” he said.
Thatcher’s talk in February 1999 drew nearly five thousand people to the Ferrell Center.
Upon finishing law school, Painter worked for Fulbright & Jaworski until starting his own firm in 2005. His wife, Taunya Painter, practices with him at Painter Law Firm in Houston.
Painter met Elbegdorj in 2003 at a Heritage Foundation conference in New Orleans while the Mongolian leader, who had already served one term as prime minister, was studying at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
The two hit it off, and Painter invited Elbegdorj to Houston to speak at a South Texas College of Law forum.
Painter’s pastor, the Rev. Johnny Pope of Christchurch Baptist Fellowship, attended a reception for the Mongolian leader and several months later received a prayer request from a missionary who wanted to open a Bible printing press in Mongolia.
“My pastor told him, ‘The weird thing is, there’s a guy at our church who knows the former prime minister. Maybe it would be a good connection,”‘ Painter said.
More than a year later, Painter accompanied several missionaries to Mongolia to meet with Elbegdorj, who by then was again prime minister.
Over lunch, Painter told Elbegdorj the missionaries were interested in opening a Christian press and asked for his thoughts.
“He said, ‘I think that’s a great idea,”‘ Painter recalled. “He said it was a great way to meet the spiritual needs of the Mongolian people. The people with me were completely floored. He talked also about how Genghis Khan was the first ruler of any country to have laws relating to religious tolerance.”
Within a year, the press opened in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and is still operating, Painter said.
Since then, Painter and Elbegdorj, Mongolia’s president since 2009, have worked on various projects, such as real estate and mining. Painter wasn’t surprised, then, to get a message last May 18 from Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, Mongolia’s Stanford-educated minister of culture, who is also a parliament member and presidential aide.
But Painter could not have anticipated the content of that message. Could anything be done, she asked, to legally stop a dinosaur skeleton auction in less than forty-eight hours in New York City?
Tsedevdamba said she learned about the impending sale from her American husband, who was reading news on his computer. She dashed to her own computer to send an e-mail to a Mongolian paleontologist in New York, Bolortsetseg MM-jin, and found one from Minjin in her inbox, alerting her that the T. bataar was from Mongolia.
Under Mongolian law, dinosaur fossils are considered government property, but there is no registration system, leaving the ancient bones vulnerable to theft, the culture minister said.
“With no delay, I called President Elbegdorj, asking him to immediately act,” she said. After meeting with the president, Tsedevdamba sent e-mails to five attorneys, including Painter. “Even though it was terribly short notice, Robert responded immediately,” she said. “Mongolia was lucky, thanks to the friendship of the president and Robert.”
Painter was the only one of the five to respond, she said.
The Houston attorney, who had been planning to leave the next day for Singapore on a business trip, began making calls. It would be a long night.
“I never had a dinosaur case before,” Painter said. “I don’t think anyone has, or very few. But the types of tools you use are the types that were taught at Baylor Law School—how to use the court system to achieve through ethical and legal means the goals of your client. One of them is the temporary restraining order.”
Needing a judge in Dallas to sign a temporary restraining order on a weekend, Painter said he thought of former Baylor classmate Kirk Pittard ’95, JD ’99, now a Dallas attorney.
Pittard was preparing to start a trial that Monday but didn’t hesitate to help. He had Judge Cortez’s cell phone number, but by the time he confirmed the judge could do the needed work, Painter said he had called at least twenty other people in Dallas, some of them former classmates.
Baylor Law is unusual in fostering tight-knit groups, Pit-tard said, due to its mandatory “Practice Court” program for third-year students.
“They teach you the rules of civil procedure, how to try a lawsuit from beginning to end,” he said. “While at most law schools your third year is easiest, at Baylor, practice court makes it your hardest year at law school. You go through that with a group of friends and form very close bonds.”
Once he had an agreement from Cortez to sign the order, Painter flew to Dallas, got the signature, and hopped on a plane to New York. The auction proceeded on schedule, de-spite Painter’s e-mails and faxes to Heritage officials about the restraining order.
Rohan, the auction house president, later said the com-pany was caught between needing to protect the consignor’s rights and respecting the judge’s order.
“We also felt we had an obligation to the consignor, a dealer in business for more than a decade,” Rohan said. “He had warrantied to us in writing that he had clear title, that it was his to sell. Now, of course, we know the consignor was a colossal liar.”
Rohan said he decided the best way to satisfy everyone was to announce prior to selling the skeleton that the sale would be conditional on the satisfactory resolution of pending litigation in the matter.
Never imagining that the auction could be stopped, Mongolia’s culture minister said Painter’s successful legal intervention has had a huge impact worldwide and has helped awaken the Mongolian people’s awareness of their archaeological treasures.
The change comes none too soon, said Philip Currie, president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and a renowned dinosaur authority.
In about 2000, Currie said, paleontologists started noticing poaching on the rise at Mongolian archaeological quarries.
“We’re talking probably hundreds of quarries that have been damaged and destroyed since about 2000,” said Currie, a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada.
At Bugin Tsav, a protected Gobi Desert site where about a dozen Tarbosaurus bataar skeletons were found in the 1960s, poachers struck with no regard for history or posterity. “In 2000, we went to the site, and every specimen had been hacked out of the ground and destroyed,” he said. “The skeletons were gone. It was heartbreaking.”
Mining, which has brought new roads and better vehicles to the area, has made dinosaur smuggling easier, he said.
Currie was one of three paleontologists called upon to assess whether the T. bataar skeleton was from Mongolia.
“We didn’t have to get too close,” said Currie, who examined the bones June 5 at a New York warehouse. “It was the right size, the right color, the right everything.”
Currie said he’s impressed with Painter’s efforts to repatriate the T. bataar and his continuing work to help paleontologists.
“When we found more poached specimens showing up on an auction, we would get the information to Robert, and he would get it to the government in Mongolia or the right people in the American government,” he said.
Painter is looking at the bigger picture of dinosaur smuggling, not just individual cases, Currie said.
For Painter, helping Mongolia establish legal procedures and processes to secure its cultural heritage is a natural progression in the country’s democracy.
“As someone who feels a great deal of affinity and admiration for Mongolian people, I felt it was important to do this,” he said.
Although he had to learn how to spell “Tyrannosaurus” when he filed the restraining order last year, Painter said his lack of familiarity didn’t prevent him from understanding that the restraining order was necessary to prevent irreparable harm: “There aren’t any more dinosaurs roaming the earth. It takes a long time to fossilize them. If they disappear, they are gone forever.”
Carol Christian is a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. A native of Des Moines, Iowa, she moved to Houston in 1993 and considers it a great news town. After graduating from Houghton College, in Houghton, New York, she earned master’s degrees in sociology from Michigan State University and in journalism from Northwestern University.