Should Paul Fielding go to jail?

He's violated the public trust and betrayed his own ethical standards. But is Dallas' perpetually annoying councilman guilty of fraud, perjury, and extortion?

On a chilly morning in early November, on his 133rd day under federal indictment, Paul Fielding was waiting impatiently at Dallas Love Field's Gate 12. It was 9 a.m., and he was dressed in a pair of tan corduroy pants, a perfectly pressed flannel shirt, and a pair of brown ostrich boots.

"Nothing like showing up at the last minute," Fielding said with his trademark smirk as he tapped the top of his wristwatch with a bony index finger.

Fielding and I were catching the 9:10 flight to Tulsa, Oklahoma--home of the Philbrook Museum of Art, Oral Roberts University, and Gary Richardson, Fielding's criminal defense lawyer.

Richardson had agreed to let Fielding talk to me about the indictments that threaten to put the Dallas city councilman in federal prison for up to 70 years. But Richardson had to be present, and because he was in the middle of a trial in Oklahoma, there was only one way to accomplish that. Fielding and I were flying to Tulsa.

Despite the racket of the jet engines, my tardiness, and the unpleasant topic of the upcoming interview, Fielding was in high spirits--which for him means chatty, articulate, and mean-spirited.

Settling back in his seat, Fielding began gleefully spewing the latest gossip from Dallas City Hall--tidbits and criticisms about nearly everybody, which, of course, included his daily Top 10 reasons for despising the mayor.

"The man is absolutely worthless," Fielding said, scrunching up his face with distaste at the mere thought of Ron Kirk. "I mean, [former Mayor Steve] Bartlett didn't get anything done either--he screwed everything up--but at least he tried. You know, people forget that I actually liked Bartlett when he was first elected." (Perhaps it was your dart board with the former mayor's face on it--or the time you publicly called Bartlett a "worm"--that made us forget.)

It wasn't until the flight attendant passed out orange juice and coffee that Fielding alluded to the grave trouble he was in. "You know, I always drink Dr Pepper--that's what I drink," Fielding mused. "And whenever Jim Turner, the president of Dr Pepper, would see me on TV sitting at the council horseshoe with a Dr Pepper, he would always thank me for drinking Dr Pepper. I guess now that I've been indicted, he prefers I drink Pepsi or Coke."

He smiled broadly at his own expense, then moved on to the next colorful anecdote. If Fielding was troubled by his legal predicament, he wasn't showing it. Which prompted me to ask what I'd been wondering all morning--actually, what I'd been wondering for the five months since Fielding became the councilmember with eight felony counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, and extortion on his head.

"Why aren't you more upset about all of this?" I asked.
"What do you want me to do?" Fielding shot back indignantly, his voice thick with annoyance. "Jump out the window?"

Actually--though I didn't bother to say this--jumping out the window was precisely what a number of people at City Hall had been privately speculating--or hoping--Fielding would do following the indictments. After all, a guy like Fielding--an insufferably imperious, loud-mouthed guy trapped in a weakling's body--would have rather dismal prospects in prison. Surely, if Fielding were ever convicted, people had been whispering to each other, he would simply flee the country. Or make a mess on the pavement in front of City Hall.

But Fielding is completely and utterly confident that he will be vindicated.
"You have to have faith in the system--that it really works," he told me that morning on the plane. "I mean, obviously the [U.S.] Justice Department side of it doesn't work, so hopefully the judiciary will."

It's scandalous how federal prosecutors and FBI agents pervert the democratic system, especially when they're determined to snag a public official, Fielding said. "They decide they're going to look at something, and then they build a case to prove their theory," Fielding said. "Which is exactly what's happened to me.

"It's just like Richard Jewell," he added, referring to the one-time suspect in Atlanta's Centennial Park pipe-bombing. "But with him, the whole world was watching."

We were flying over Tulsa now, and Fielding was straining to see out the windows. But whatever he was looking for eluded him. "This is the 'City of Faith,'" Fielding finally explained. "Where are the praying hands? They're huge, but I don't see them."

Indeed, the oversized sculpture that sits at the gate of Oral Roberts University evaded us on this bright, sunny day. And, I recall thinking at the time, that was a shame.

Because if anybody needs a large pair of praying hands right about now, it's Paul Nathan Fielding.

Paul Fielding is no Richard Jewell. The story of Paul Fielding's entanglement with the federal government is far less simple. Far less innocent. Far sadder.

The Dallas Observer has spent the last two months investigating the circumstances surrounding the Fielding indictments and the people who are at the center of them: Fielding; his former business partner Sam Feldman; and a local business consultant named Gail Cooper, whom Fielding and Feldman turned to in 1992 to help them do crisis intervention at their four-year-old company--a factoring business called Mason Rich Company, Inc.

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