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?

"He was the watchdog, and I'll tell you, I feel like I'm a watchdog," says former city councilman Jerry Bartos, one of many conservative Republicans who have supported and admired Fielding's service on the council. "I did feel that Paul was too aggressively personal in his criticisms, but the overall effect of the man was watchdog. Paul had a black-and-white standard of going after corruption and waste. If it was wrong, he would attack it."

Other high-profile Dallasites backed him, too. Former mayor Starke Taylor--a wealthy, conservative Bent Tree businessman--recalls how shocked people were when he allowed Fielding to use his name on his 1991 campaign literature. The North Dallas conservative crowd was quick to remind Taylor that in Fielding's previous political life--when he came from obscurity in 1983 to be elected to the council at the age of 27--he had been so curt and disrespectful to people that when he ran for re-election two years later, his opponent Lori Palmer snatched his place away from him.

"If I needed him on something that I thought was important for the city, I could rely on him--I could depend on his vote," says Taylor, who was mayor when Fielding was first elected. "I believed he was honest. That doesn't mean I've always agreed with him, though. But I think Paul did what he thought was right. And I respect him for that."

One of the biggest, most consistent boosters of Fielding these past five years has been, well, this columnist. Shortly after Kirk was elected mayor in 1995, I wrote a column analyzing the bitter feud that had instantly developed between Kirk and Fielding.

I wrote that although Fielding deserved his share of the blame for the acrimony, that didn't mean he was a bad person or a bad councilman. Why? "Because this is a smart man," I wrote. "This is an ethical man. This is an honest man. On complex issues at City Hall, he wields a verbal scalpel--making mincemeat out of dense city staffers and showing up any council member who dares oppose him on an issue's merits. Fielding believes in open government, unlike the majority of his brethren. He serves the public without political motive or opportunistic bent."

No one has ever accused Fielding of being a likeable fellow, however. He's whiny, petulant, stubborn, and mean. He's fond of name-calling, only too delighted to hit below the belt. He's immensely proud, for instance, to have once provoked the diminutive director of the Dallas Housing Authority into shoving Fielding face-first into a metal door frame. He is clearly the oddest duck on an eccentric council--an intensely private person who boasts a handful of fiercely loyal friends and a list of enemies as long as Richard Nixon's.

Still, unlike most of his gutless associates around the horseshoe, Fielding has never, ever been afraid to speak out against the monied, mighty, and powerful; never been one to back down on something just because it was stamped controversial or politically incorrect; never preferred closed-door discussions to robust, public debate.

He has disdained political junkets; demanded a public vote on a sports arena; and railed against the constant hemorrhaging of money at DART. Even Ron Kirk will tell you that Fielding is one of the smartest people on the council in terms of sheer brain wattage.

None of which you can take away from him--and all of which makes Fielding's supporters want to believe that there has to be another explanation for his legal troubles.

"Most people think it's some sort of conspiracy," says councilwoman Donna Blumer, Fielding's closest ally at City Hall. "Paul has made any number of enemies--powerful enemies--simply because he is so outspoken, so honest about expressing his opinions. And therefore he could be dangerous to some people. And therefore most people I talk to view these indictments with a great deal of suspicion--that there's some motive other than what's on the face of it."

Fielding not only agrees with this somewhat extreme--some would say paranoid--theory, he takes it a giant step further.

"Something like this takes a pretty big stick, and there's no bigger stick than [oilman] Ray Hunt and [A.H. Belo chairman] Robert Decherd and all the downtown boys--anybody who has an interest in the arena," Fielding has told me numerous times. "I mean, when I go off the council--if I go--there's not going to be anybody who will say a word about the arena. The arena will sail through in the blink of an eye."

Fielding pauses before relaunching. "Anyone who is interested in the raping of the city and getting into the public's pocket is not going to be a friend of mine," he says. "On the arena, we went from a $200 million deal to a $1 billion deal overnight--and the city council has never even been briefed on it. Do you think there's a way they can build a $1 billion deal downtown without condemning land? Not possible. It will make Reunion Arena look like a Boy Scout outing."

Unfortunately for Fielding's theory, neither Ray Hunt nor Robert Decherd appear in any of the thousands of documents the Observer uncovered. And the FBI's interest in Paul Fielding predates the arena by a couple of years--even predates Fielding's election to the council by a couple of months.

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