By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If a $7 bounced dog license check doesn't strike you as the stuff of political intrigue, you haven't been to City Hall lately--where Dallas' blame game has dipped to an absurd level.
Before Checkgate--or Doggiegate, if you prefer--was over, Mayor Ron Kirk had received a racially insulting letter, and fired off a nasty, not to mention grammatically questionable, threat of his own to a well-known City Hall gadfly.
It started on November 15 last year when M. Jeanne Kudlicki, a retired interior decorator, wrote a $7 check to the city of Dallas to register her dog, Kelly.
Two weeks later, an animal control services worker put Kudlicki's check, along with other receipts, into a bank bag. Animal control services staff handed the bag over to a city courier to transfer it to the Water Utilities department, where armored trucks pick up the city's checks and payments for deposit.
Murphy's Law promptly kicked in. The courier apparently put the animal control services bank bag under the truck's seat during a stop--to ensure it wasn't stolen--and forgot it was there.
Several weeks later, according to a memo from Assistant City Manager Ramon Miquez, who investigated the issue, mystified workers in animal control services realized that they had not received the usual confirmation that the deposit had been made. "They began to research what had happened to the paperwork, thinking it was a documentation problem," Miquez states in his memo. That "research" would last five months and come up with nothing.
Meanwhile, Kudlicki, who had long suffered from cancer, died on January 20.
In mid-March, Kudlicki's full-bred collie, for whom the check had been written, also passed away, under unusual circumstances. The dog, according to the widower, Sieg Kudlicki, had an intense fear of thunder. Home alone during a loud storm one night, the terrified Kelly clawed its way onto a kitchen counter only to fall down and break its back. The next day, the widower had to have his wife's beloved dog destroyed.
In early April, Sieg Kudlicki finally closed his wife's account at her bank. "I did notice that one check had not cleared," he recalls. But his wife's check register simply noted it as "animal registration."
"I assumed she had tried to give the money to some kind of charity," Mr. Kudlicki says.
Back at City Hall, the workers at animal control services finally got a break in their "research." They were notified on April 21 that an unopened bag of checks had been discovered in the courier vehicle. The checks, including Mrs. Kudlicki's $7 check, were taken to the bank, this time without incident.
Mrs. Kudlicki's check, having been written on a now-closed account, promptly bounced sky-high. But when the bank returned the check to animal control, it cited only "insufficient funds." In the eyes of the city, Mrs. Kudlicki became a deadbeat--how dead, they had no idea.
In August--some nine months after the late Mrs. Kudlicki had written the check--the animal control services department sent her a collection notice. But the department now sought not just the original $7 for the dog registration, but an additional $25 penalty for having to deal with a bounced check.
After opening the letter addressed to his late wife, Sieg Kudlicki immediately telephoned animal control services to explain the situation and seek, at least, a reprieve from the bad check fee.
He got none.
"They were adamant about it," he recalls of his conversations with city workers. "I told them both the dog and my wife had passed away, but they didn't care."
It didn't take long for Frank Bodzin to hear about the widower's plight, and he promptly became outraged. An 80-year-old retiree, Bodzin, who ran unsuccessfully for a North Dallas city council seat, spends at least two days a month at City Hall as a self-appointed citizen watchdog. As often as he is allowed--once a month--Bodzin addresses the council at its meeting about various issues and concerns he sees fit to bring to its attention. He has spoken forcefully on several occasions against taxpayers' financing a new arena, and often on the injustice of storm drain fees.
Armed with the widower Kudlicki's pathetic story of bureaucratic bungling and insensitivity, Bodzin ripped into the council at a September 13 meeting. Standing at the podium, he explained how badly Mr. Kudlicki had been treated and how ludicrous and vindictive the city's collection efforts appeared, given its mismanagement of the deposit in the first place.
When Bodzin alerted the council members to the animal registration mishap, the matter quickly got the attention it needed. Collection efforts for the Kudlicki check were halted.
Even more impressive, several steps were taken to "prevent this problem from recurring and to strengthen internal controls," according to the memo from Assistant City Manager Miquez, whom city manager John Ware assigned to investigate the matter.
The city hired a private courier service to take checks to the bank. Animal control services stopped sending its deposits on such an indirect route--via Water Utilities--to the bank. The staff is now required to check daily for bank deposit slips and notify the controller's office if a deposit doesn't show up in seven days--instead of seven months. And as of May, animal registration is handled by a private contractor.