Lies on Tape

Secret city documents expose arena-study coverup at City Hall.

At Dallas City Hall, it can take a long time to find the truth.
That's because this city manager and city council don't like the public to know what they're doing.

So they play games.
They have a lot of closed-door meetings. They discuss things they're not supposed to discuss in those meetings. And then, when the press and public, tired of being shut out, start requesting documents about the handling of public business, the powers that be at City Hall work zealously to keep them from being released.

Sometimes, though, their efforts fail. The staff and the council screw up: they overlook things, they get forgetful, or they just get caught--and information gets out. And when it does, the twisted manner in which our government is run comes to full light.

It happened last November.
That's when this newspaper, after months of closed-door meetings at City Hall and fruitless attempts to obtain public records, finally pried loose a mountain of documents involving the sports arena. Among some 15,000 pages, there was a draft of a secret $50,000 arena study--called "the ASAP study"--undertaken seven months earlier by the city manager's office without the city council's knowledge.

The mere existence of the study was bad enough. After all, the city staff wasn't supposed to spend more than $10,000 without the city council's approval. It was also unclear why the city staff had done a study at all when a parallel arena study was being conducted for free by Dallas businessman John Crawford and several architectural and mortgage firms he had recruited for a city-sanctioned panel.

This was a bad situation--but given the lazy, trusting nature of the council, the staff could easily have airbrushed it into oblivion. Instead, the naturally underhanded proclivities of our city manager and some of his top deputies mushroomed a simple mess into a full-fledged scandal.

Because City Manager John Ware and Company reacted to the news that the Observer had unearthed the secret study by being...secretive. For almost two weeks, they met behind closed doors to discuss how to explain it. Then they met behind closed doors on November 16 with the council and presented their carefully-honed version of events.

Even then--even there, in private--what they told the council wasn't true. They blamed the whole thing--all $50,000 of unauthorized spending--on Louise Elam, an unassuming architect in the public works department. And they fed that preposterous story to The Dallas Morning News, which regurgitated it, virtually word for erroneous word.

On and on it went--until the city manager's office had managed to create a full-blown scandal.

Councilman Paul Fielding, who can smell rats in the City Hall basement even when sitting in the sixth-floor council chamber, called for City Auditor Dan Paul to investigate. Which he did.

Paul methodically interviewed 26 people with knowledge of the secret study. Then, to compare their version of events with the one the city manager's office had dished up to the council--in short, to see who was telling the truth--he obtained permission from the city attorney to listen to a tape recording of the November 16 closed-door meeting with the council.

Paul almost didn't get the tape. Several council members, led by Donna Halstead, inexplicably challenged Paul's right to listen to the tape. Temporarily successful, they postponed its release to Paul by an entire month.

Now, six months later, it's clear why people in City Hall wanted to keep the tape locked up tight.

It's all on the tape, a transcript of which city officials mistakenly released last month to the Dallas Observer--along with several hundred pages of work papers that Paul used to prepare his final report on the secret study.

The tape reveals the unvarnished behavior behind closed doors of First Assistant City Manager Cliff Keheley, who dished up a load of lies to the council; of council members like Halstead, who too easily embraced his story; of Assistant City Manager Ted Benavides, who remained silent as he listened to what he knew were lies; and of City Manager John Ware, who should have known they were lies, but instead promised to punish the falsely accused.

The work papers reveal that, no matter how much various council members, the Morning News, and--by his profound silence--Ware backed Keheley up, City Auditor Dan Paul's harsh judgment of the affair was right on target.

Actually, he was downright charitable.
After investigating for three months, Dan Paul reached three critical conclusions in his audit.

No. 1: The architect in public works, Louise Elam, did nothing wrong.
No. 2: Cliff Keheley, Ware's top deputy at the time, actually commissioned the secret study.

No. 3: Keheley, rather than own up to his actions, instead chose to make a scapegoat out of Louise Elam, the lowest-ranking member of the secret study group that he personally assembled.

Of course, Keheley--who wouldn't return repeated phone calls for this story--didn't like this version of events. So when the audit report was released, he issued a combative, two-page response, which began by reiterating the implausible version of events he'd given the council, and ended by calling Paul, in so many words, an unprofessional scoundrel.

As far as The Morning News and the local TV stations were concerned, the truth lay somewhere in between--you just had to decide whether you wanted to believe more of Paul's version or more of Keheley's. (The News clearly favored Keheley. Shortly before Paul released his audit, the newspaper ran a long, highly critical story about the quality of Paul's work during his 14 years with the city.)

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