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?

"I regret that I would be in business with someone who would lie about me for whatever reason he's lying about me to make a deal with the government," he says.

Fielding believes Feldman simply panicked. "The thing you have to understand about Sam is that he's a nervous person anyway," Fielding says. "When everything is running smoothly Sam is a nervous person. So this gave him plenty of grist for the mill. We were going to fight this thing together. We talked about this all the time--every day, all the time."

That fight began early--two-and-a-half years before Fielding was indicted--when Mason Rich's faithful bookkeeper of four years, Karen Swank, sat her two bosses down one day to confess something to them.

"The FBI went to the home of my bookkeeper at 7 o'clock one night with their guns to have a talk with her," Fielding says. "They stayed for a couple of hours. They told her they wanted to know what illegal activities Sam and I were up to. At some point, she asked them, 'Should I look for a new job?' And they said, 'Well, I certainly would keep my options open.' She didn't tell us any of this for two months. She seemed embarrassed that she hadn't."

Fielding and Feldman--with Fielding's father's money--immediately hired criminal lawyer Chuck Meadows. "The first thing Chuck says is, 'Let's go talk to them and see what they want,'" says Fielding. "So he went and talked to them. And when he came back to us, he said, 'Don't worry. They don't have anything.'"

Fifteen months passed uneventfully. Then, one morning in March 1995, all hell broke loose. Fielding was sitting at his desk in the Signature Place high-rise on Preston Road when five or six FBI agents strode through the front door of the office suite, flashed a search warrant, and began emptying file cabinets. In four hours, they seized Rolodexes and personal files, then carried all the computers out the door.

That same day, another group of FBI agents was busy up in Aubrey, Texas, executing a similar raid at Gail Cooper's ranch near Denton.

As Chuck Meadows would soon learn from federal prosecutors, the FBI had been tapping Gail Cooper's phone since November 1994. Although wiretaps on people's private lines are generally only approved by a judge for 10-day periods, the FBI had somehow gotten permission to keep the wiretap running for five long months. The feds claimed to have some 1,200 tapes with more than 10,000 conversations on them--and there were many, many calls between the Aubrey ranch and Mason Rich. (Interestingly enough, there are reportedly only about a half-dozen tapes with Fielding on them.)

Although Fielding's lawyer has not obtained copies of those tapes yet, when he does you can bet he will be zeroing in on every word that is said about the two biggest problems Mason Rich had at the time--both of which Cooper was on retainer to solve.

The first giant problem was the Miller Brewing Company fraud. MAll during 1991, Mason Rich had been successfully factoring a small, minority-owned business called Raypak Corporation, owned by Raymond Jones. Raypak was a distributor for stretchy packaging material, which it sold to big companies like Fort Worth's Miller Brewing Company, which used Raypak's product to hold six cans of beer together. Raypak was a great client for Mason Rich--it did high-volume, steady business with a reputable company that paid its bills on time with no questions asked.

"We were purchasing the same invoices from [Jones] every month--$75,000 a month, just like clockwork," Fielding says. "Raypak was one of our three biggest clients."

Starting with the November 1991 invoices, though, Miller suddenly stopped paying. Fielding says he and Feldman were not worried at first. After all, Miller had always paid in the past, so Mason Rich just rolled along, continuing to buy the invoices from Raypak--waiting for Miller to pay. "We figured it was an error in the accounting department over at Miller," Fielding recalls. "But by the time March rolled around, the November invoices should definitely have been paid, so we were concerned."

Another reason they hadn't been concerned at first, Fielding says, is because Mason Rich's bookkeeper had called Miller's purchasing agent, an 18-year employee named Louis Winsett, every time Mason Rich got ready to buy a new invoice. Swank confirmed that the invoices Mason Rich was buying were legitimate--meaning that the product had been delivered and the company was planning to pay.

By March, a worried Fielding called Winsett. "He told me, 'No problem. It's just accounting procedures. Don't worry. Check's in the mail,'" Fielding says. "Two weeks go by--no check. And Louis says to me: 'Don't worry about it.' Never once did he say I didn't receive the product."

When Fielding and Feldman finally stopped buying Raypak's invoices in late March, Mason Rich was in the hole for $356,000--about 25 percent of the company's net worth.

Fielding and Feldman were going to have to do a lot of explaining to their bank. But what Fielding and Feldman really feared was breaking the news to their biggest investor--a tough, no-nonsense guy named David Glatstein, president and CEO of a downtown Dallas investment banking firm called Southwest Securities Group, Inc.

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