By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In praise of secrecy
Stop the presses!
The Morning News has published one of the most wrongheaded and dishonest editorials in the history of Dallas journalism--and believe BeloWatch, given the tenor of the News editorial page over the ages, that's saying a lot.
Headlined "Arena talks--Garcia's response is out of line," last Friday's editorial tore into former mayor pro tem Domingo Garcia for urging a criminal investigation of illegal closed-door meetings between a City Council committee and Dallas Mavericks officials. Garcia made his comments in reaction to U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall's ruling that the sessions violated the Texas open-meetings act.
Unwilling to attack the judge, the News instead tore into Garcia for merely echoing Kendall's 25-page opinion--even though doing so required distorting Garcia's comments, providing a highly selective summary of the judge's statements, and virtually condoning the city's illegal conduct.
"Pity the poor mosquito that buzzes by Domingo Garcia's ear," the News sneered. "The former Dallas mayor pro tem would probably use a shotgun to bring the critter down."
Judge Kendall decided that "council members broke the rules" and "went too far in their efforts to reach a funding agreement" with Donald Carter, the News explained. "...The five council members who participated in the talks strongly disagree that they did anything wrong."
Big surprise there.
"But Mr. Garcia has weighed in with the conclusion that their activities might merit criminal prosecution,"the paper added. "Talk about an overreaction.
"The facts in this case are hardly as sinister as the former pro tem would like the public to believe."Council members were merely trying to "keep the arena talks moving forward"; besides, "City Attorney Sam Lindsay says the district attorney's office told him it would be all right to hold the meetings in private."
Judge Kendall, the News sadly noted, "has now decided otherwise....
"The state's open meeting laws should not be violated, even if that was not the council members' intent," the paper grudgingly acknowledged. "But it also is wrong for Mr. Garcia to imply that the council knowingly broke the rules so that arena negotiations could be 'shrouded in secrecy.'"
The News' deaf-dumb-and-blind allegiance to the arena project has been evident for months. The council committee was always a sham--supposedly representative, in truth composed of five members who support the new arena.
But BeloWatch still found it remarkable to see a newspaper excuse, minimize, and virtually embrace illegal secret meetings.
For one thing, Kendall did not rule that city officials "broke the rules"--like fidgety children who didn't wait their turn in line. He ruled they broke the law. As Kendall noted, violating the Texas Open Meetings Act is a crime--a misdemeanor punishable by fine, confinement in the county jail, or both.
And the evidence Kendall cited suggests the Dallas officials acted with contempt. The judge noted, for example, that the early private meetings weren't publicly posted or recorded, as the law requires. After receiving complaints, the city staff began posting the meetings and recording the proceedings. But Kendall's opinion suggests how seriously the council members regarded their legal obligations. Though the law requires taping of executive sessions to discourage improper discussions--and permit later judicial review--"several times during various meetings the tape recorder was obviously turned off and then on again," Kendall wrote. "Some committee members joke about this on the tapes." Noted the judge: "There is no provision in the [act] which permits a governmental body to selectively tape its proceedings..."
In short, it wasn't just Garcia who implied that these activities merit criminal prosecution (in fact, Garcia merely called for an investigation). The judge ruled that they violated the law. Yes, the DA's office had said closed-door meetings to discuss certain limited matters are legal. But that doesn't mean anything goes.
"The facts in this case are hardly as sinister as the former mayor pro tem would like the public to believe," wrote the News.
BeloWatch begs to differ: they're worse.
As Laura Miller details in her column this week, the Dallas City Council has long had a disturbing tendency to conduct public business behind closed doors. In this case, they were caught red-handed.
The Dallas Morning News ought to be expressing outrage--not defending them.
News? What news?
There's a fascinating and important national story brewing, involving wealth, foreign intrigue, greed, political hypocrisy--and one of Dallas' most prominent families.
You'd think the Dallas Morning News would be rushing to write about it.
You'd think wrong.
The tale is that of megadeveloper Trammell Crow's bizarre dalliance with Libyan dictator Moammar al-Qadhafi's government. U.S. News broke the story in December 1993, revealing that federal prosecutors were investigating Libyan attempts to buy influence in the U.S.--in part, through the Crow family--in hope of easing economic sanctions imposed after the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
In December 1994, the Observer published a cover story offering fresh details about how the plan involved Crow and his son-in-law Henry Billingsley, who were hoping to unload $200 million in real estate. The Observer report quoted correspondence in which Libya's finance minister thanks the elder Crow "on behalf of our Leader" for carrying Qadhafi's water--lobbying to lift the Lockerbie sanctions--to high-ranking government officials in Washington. On May 25, the Observer reported the criminal indictment of William Bodine, a longtime Billingsley friend who brokered the contacts between the Libyans and influential Americans.
Last Tuesday, June 6, NBC Nightly News broadcast a lengthy report covering some of the ground the Observer had broken six months earlier. Dallas' NBC affiliate, KXAS--Channel 5, followed with two local rehashes. (Neither credited the Observer).
The News, as the Observer was going to press on Tuesday, had published only a 140-word national news brief back in December, pulled largely from a wire report, on page 15A. A knowledgeable source tells BeloWatch the News, finally recognizing the story wouldn't go away, has now been stirred into action--with an article by staff writer Rich Oppel Jr. planned for publication as early as Wednesday.
What astonishes BeloWatch is that it took so long--how willing the News is to ignore, for months, a fascinating story on its own turf. There are two possible explanations: the News' ties to Crow, and its hatred of following a story that appeared in the Observer.
It's yet more evidence of the cost of life in a one-daily town; if it faced daily competition, the News wouldn't have dared to try dodging this story--and its responsibilitiy to readers--for so long.