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?

(Cooper, who has been indicted with Fielding, declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Feldman, who has pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud. Feldman is expected to receive probation after he testifies against Cooper and Fielding in their trial.)

Some questions are obvious and will ultimately be decided by a jury in Sherman: Did Fielding commit the crimes the federal authorities claim he did? Should he go to prison for it?

But even if he were to be acquitted in his trial, which is set to begin in April, an equally important issue needs to be addressed before the May 3 Dallas City Council elections. Does Paul Fielding, who is campaigning for a third straight term, deserve to be re-elected? Has Fielding lived up to the impeccable standard of righteous conduct he sets for his fellow public servants?

For the past five years, Fielding has held himself out as the city's model of fiscal rectitude and public responsibility--as virtually the lone defender of open, honest government for all. Federal prosecutors, though, would have us believe he is a lying, extorting, conspiring thief. Who, then, is the real Paul Fielding?

The search for answers begins with Fielding--who agreed for the first time to discuss publicly virtually every aspect of the 44-page federal indictment and how it has destroyed his business life, threatened to end his political career, and forced him to rely, at the age of 41, on his parents for financial support.

The federal cases against Fielding, Feldman, and Cooper are massively complex--a mountain of paper, phone tapes, and cooperating witnesses that the authorities will reveal only when a jury is seated four months from now. But the larger truth also lies in the public record that has accumulated on those three men over the last 23 years--more than 88 separate civil, criminal, divorce, and bankruptcy cases filed in Dallas and Denton counties, hundreds of pages of City of Dallas records subpoenaed by the FBI, and reams of corporate records filed with the Secretary of State and Texas Comptroller's office in Austin, along with deed records, arrest reports, traffic violations, city purchasing records, code enforcement citations, and federal and state tax liens.

In addition, the Observer interviewed more than 40 other people and obtained several boxes of revealing federal wiretap transcripts, some of which may well be used in Fielding's upcoming trial.

The story that emerges from this mass of information is populated with colorful crooks and smug undercover agents, and is laced with a seemingly ridiculous amount of phone tapping. The story revolves around Sam Feldman, a two-faced, weak-kneed business partner who Fielding, the city's fiscal watchdog, should have rid himself of years ago; Gail Cooper, a so-called consultant whose sleaziness is the stuff of legend; and the abuse of the public trust--a trust that Fielding will never be able to regain.

Still, it's a wonder that Mike Savage, the assistant U.S. attorney who will be squaring off against Fielding in Sherman, can bear to look at himself in the mirror these days. Because if this is the best case the federal government can put forward after five long years of pursuit--which is how long the FBI has been targeting Fielding--then perhaps the largest police force in the world and the largest law firm in the world need to have their budgets scrutinized. Perhaps they need someone who wields a fiscal scalpel as deftly as Paul Fielding.

Though a jury will ultimately decide the issue, the evidence examined by the Observer appears far short of what would be necessary to prove Fielding guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, let alone sentence him to serious prison time.

But legal guilt or innocence aside, judging from the same evidence, the answer to whether Fielding should remain a public servant is crystal-clear: No. Fielding's private actions--the decisions he makes for himself away from the council's horseshoe--have made a mockery of his relentless holier-than-thou criticisms of the ethics of his fellow public officials. There's just too much bad judgment, too much sleaze, too much hypocrisy lurking beneath the story of Fielding's one-man crusade for honesty, openness, and fiscal integrity for all.

But he's a far cry from being a felon. If he were, he surely would have taken the FBI's bait years ago when they first began pursuing him in a bumbling "sting" operation called Cobra Nest.

That said, when the veil is lifted on Fielding's private life, which he zealously shields from his public one, it is clear he has spent too much time in the company of lowlifes. He's stood by passively as people have scammed and schemed all around him. He's done too many ethically questionable things--both as councilman and businessman--that he would never let another elected official get away with.

Paul Fielding's contributions at City Hall are many. So are the reasons why it's time for him to go.

Fielding's image with his conservative North Dallas constituents was probably the brightest it had ever been at the time he was indicted.

In five years on the council, Fielding, though abrasive and often annoying, had proved to be the man he'd pledged to be on the campaign trail in 1991. He was a fiscal warrior come galloping in to save the city from its decade of lavish spending and overbuilding. Though it was seldom pleasant to watch him work, Fielding was indeed a zealot who abhorred waste, sloth, stupidity, and stealth, and who exhibited zero tolerance for impure motives or self-dealing of any stripe.

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