By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
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.
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.
(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.
"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.
Still, like most of Fielding's outrageous assertions, there may be a kernel of truth in there somewhere. Because Fielding's troubles did start like a bad spy novel, complete with a silly code name: "Operation Cobra Nest."
Cobra Nest was an elaborate sting operation that the FBI set up in early 1991 to root out suspected corruption in the local defense industry.
With apparently no hard evidence of any serious crimes to go on, the feds set up a dummy business in North Dallas and went fishing for felons. It was the goal of the company, according to the sting, to help small, minority-owned businesses obtain contracts with the big defense companies by helping the little guys obtain the financing and product lines to pull it off.
But the money behind the company, called Edwards & Associates, was federal money--and its employees were actually undercover FBI agents. The feds brought in some experienced help by "recruiting" two businessmen who had just been busted in a defense industry kickback scheme in Arizona. To avoid prison, the two electrical parts distributors agreed to set up shop in Dallas and go to work fulltime for the feds.
Three and a half years later, the local media dutifully hailed Cobra Nest as an enormous success when the feds, displaying tiny airplane parts at a Dallas press conference, finally issued a battery of indictments.
The reality, however, was much different. Cobra Nest could be more accurately described as a multimillion-dollar boondoggle--an expensive FBI fishing expedition that involved extensive phone tapping, surreptitious videotaping, and incessant offers of cash and lavish entertainment to suspects.
For all that effort, Cobra Nest resulted in the indictments or guilty pleas of only 13 industry bottom-feeders in Dallas and Oklahoma. (When the Observer asked the local FBI office for the exact taxpayer-funded price tag on Project Cobra Nest, spokeswoman Marjorie Poche scoffed. "I don't have that," she said. "Why would I? I don't have it, and I don't know that anyone has it." She promised to look into it, but never called back.)
The meager roundup of criminals was particularly disappointing given that the government's real target--top officials at three major defense companies, Loral Vought Systems, Bell Helicopter, and Vought Aircraft Co.--never took the bait, never committed any crimes, despite the FBI's best efforts. In the end, the feds couldn't even nail all of the 13 they'd indicted.
In perhaps the most embarrassing case of overzealous investigation and prosecution, the feds managed to indict a man who didn't commit any crimes--although you'd never know it from reading a copy of the incredibly damning, 14-page charge the feds crafted against him and proudly disseminated to the press.
Harmon Hardy, 65, was a successful Dallas entrepreneur and a passive investor in a small minority-owned company called C&A Electronics, Inc. C&A was owned and operated by a man named Walter Lee McGruder who appeared to spend most of his time on tapped phone lines yammering to undercover agents about his company's dire financial condition. The FBI guys at Edwards & Associates were promising to rectify McGruder's woes by making him the exclusive distributor of a certain popular brand of electrical connector. McGruder's success in this venture would depend on kickbacks to buyers at the defense companies, since McGruder had a lousy business reputation.
McGruder and Hardy ultimately were charged with paying kickbacks to a senior buyer at Bell Helicopter named Billy Joe Hodge. Hodge pleaded guilty and is serving three years' probation. McGruder was sentenced to one year in prison. Hardy's case was dismissed when his lawyer took the time to review the FBI evidence--or lack of it, actually--and convince the feds they had no case.
End of story, except that the Cobra Nest wire taps were peppered with references to Paul Fielding. That's because Fielding financed small, minority-owned businesses for a living through factoring--an increasingly common but, in the public's eye, little-known option of last resort for companies that cannot get working capital from conventional sources like banks.
Factors buy a company's receivables--the money owed to the company by its customers who have already received goods or services but haven't paid for them yet. Factoring can be a godsend--the difference between operating and shutting down--for many small companies that, with no access to loans or lines of credit from a bank, find themselves chronically strapped for cash while they wait the 45 or 60 days between the time they complete a job and the time they get paid.
This is how a factoring company works: It purchases the small company's receivables in the form of a job invoice. Then the factor goes out and collects the money owed. For its trouble, the factor pockets three to nine percent of the invoice's total value.
Factoring is not a genteel business, by any means; collecting bills is never pretty, especially when you're doing it on behalf of financially desperate people. Ideally, the factor's client is an honest, hard-working person who is struggling to get a new business off the ground or going through an unexpected and temporary financial setback. Unfortunately, that's often not the case, because desperate people who are desperately in need of money do desperate things--including, for example, creating fake invoices to sell to an unsuspecting factor.
"The biggest risk of the business is fraud," says Harold Goodman, owner of Goodman Factors, Inc., a 24-year-old Dallas-based company that is the largest privately held factoring business in the Southwest. "For everyone who calls up here saying how wonderful the factoring business is--what wonderful yields there are on the money, and how they're going to go into it--I say, 'There's one word I have for you, and that's fraud--F-R-A-U-D.'"
Paul Fielding knows that better than anyone. It was a giant factoring fraud--and how Fielding and his partner chose to deal with it--that ultimately led to financial doom and a federal indictment for the councilman.
"The difference between the factoring companies that are successful and survive and all the rest--the NBA versus the sandlot players--is how they deal with the frauds when they find them," says the owner of one of the city's oldest, most successful factoring companies who asked that his name not be used for fear the feds will come trolling around him. "It's what you do with the problem when you find it."
In Fielding's case, it's a story of what not to do.
Paul Fielding and Sam Feldman could never have foreseen that their new business venture would lead to the door of the FBI.
They had teamed up in 1988--two old college friends from UT-Austin, both of whom were from well-respected families with deep Dallas roots. Both had entered the real estate market after school, both had tasted success in the heady real estate heyday of the '80s, both had lost everything in the crash. Like other Dallas businessmen who had taken that rollercoaster ride, Fielding and Feldman were attracted by the odds in yet another highly profitable--and equally risky--business venture. Though there were eight other factoring companies operating in the Metroplex at the time, the two men had what they believed was a novel approach.
"They wanted to specifically go after business in the black community," recalls the factor who doesn't want his name used. "They both felt they had an 'in' with the black community because of their family histories and Jewish heritage. Because historically, Jews and blacks have been on the same side of the table together. No one was lending money to the black community, and Paul was going to be the white knight--that's the way he viewed this--loaning money to these poor people who couldn't get it."
Three years later, Fielding and Feldman had a staff of three, an office in a high-rise on Preston Road at Belt Line, and a small stable of regular clients. One new client, as luck would have it, was Walter Lee McGruder--of soon-to-be Operation Cobra Nest disrepute.
On August 8, 1991, the feds taped a phone conversation between McGruder and a man named Mike Jamison, one of the two men nailed in the Arizona kickback scheme who was now working undercover for the feds. Jamison had been courting McGruder for months--promising to jumpstart McGruder's dismal career as an electrical parts distributor. The feds' plan was to get McGruder in the door of the big defense companies by making him the authorized distributor of some high-quality electrical parts. Then he'd be in the position to offer kickbacks to the defense companies' buyers in return for preferential treatment.
McGruder was eager to take the feds' bait and break into the contracting big time--but didn't have the cash flow to deliver on a major contract. The only way he could do it, he told Jamison, was to factor his business--with a guy he knew named Paul Fielding.
"OK, what's the name of Paul's company?" Jamison asks McGruder in the August 8 conversation.
"OK, Mason Rich," McGruder says.
"Mason Rich," Jamison says.
"Yeah," says McGruder. "As a matter of fact, uh, he's runnin' for city councilor, I think in your district." (He laughs.)
"Is that right?" Jamison asks.
"Yeah, I'm serious," McGruder says. "He's got flyers out now."
"God dang, gonna get him and, uh, Steve Bartlett--everybody on there, huh?" Jamison says.
That brief, bumbling conversation marks the beginning of Paul Fielding's five-year waltz across North Texas with the FBI.
Three months after that call, when Fielding was elected to the city council, the feds clearly liked the potential new criminal possibilities. So what if they couldn't bring down the defense industry--what if, instead, they tracked corruption right into Dallas City Hall?
So the FBI started orchestrating meetings, meals, and phone calls between Fielding and some of the Cobra Nest targets--two of whom were already Mason Rich factoring clients. The feds' matchmaking got pretty elaborate--a phone transcript from April 3, 1992 shows that the feds put McGruder, Fielding, and Bell Helicopter buyer Billy Joe Hodge together for lunch. The next day, agents called Hodge to ask him all about the lunch--and taped his response.
"What's going on, dude?" Jamison said to Hodge, whom he called at work that day.
"Well hell, I've been, uh, trying to catch up with a damn few orders that I've had to place and..." Hodge said.
"Well, I wanna know if you're gonna work for the City of Dallas," Jamison said.
"How was your dinner?" Jamison asked.
Hodge said Fielding had talked extensively about his disgust with DART and was critical of some games that were going on in procurement. DART purchasing agents were supposedly buying items from their buddies, Fielding said, while failing to obtain competitive bids as required by law.
"Well, does Fielding want us to be his buddies and do the same thing?" Jamison asked Hodge on that phone call.
"I think he'd be willing to...get involved with it," Hodge replied.
"Well good," Jamison said.
Try as the feds might, though, they never managed to get Fielding or anybody else at the City of Dallas to commit a crime. And in 1994, when the Cobra Nest indictments were announced, Fielding was not among those charged.
But that didn't mean the federal government gave up on him. Just consider the story of one of the select few who wound up in prison for Cobra Nest.
"When the feds told my guy, 'April Fool--we're the FBI,' they told him that if he didn't tell them everything and cooperate with them, they were going to run a search warrant on his house, his brother's house, and they might put his wife in jail," says the man's defense attorney, who didn't want to be identified so he wouldn't cross swords with federal authorities. "I still have a copy of a contract they gave him that day to work as an undercover for the FBI. They wanted him to hit on Paul Fielding, because Fielding had been active in dirty politics for the City of Dallas. They explained to him that the city uses tons of paper towels, tons of soap for floors and bathrooms, and Paul Fielding is dirty, and they want him to hit on Paul Fielding."
The man got a lawyer instead.
By all rights, the miserable end of Cobra Nest in 1994 should have marked the end of the FBI's interest in Paul Fielding.
But within seven months of the Cobra Nest indictments, Fielding and his partner Sam Feldman began showing up all over the wiretapped phone conversations of an entirely separate FBI investigation that was being conducted out of a different FBI office up in Plano. And Fielding had no one but himself to blame this time.
The target of the FBI investigation was not the defense industry or Dallas City Hall. Instead, it was an individual named Gail Cooper who needed no elaborate federal fishing expedition to ferret him out. For more than 20 years, he had been the Harry Houdini for local high-flyers--now you see their assets, now you don't.
Unlike the majority of the Cobra Nest participants, Cooper was a big, fat criminal bull's eye with a lengthy, well-documented track record of slapping people around and swindling people out of their money. He was a scammer and a thug--a 57-year-old wife-beater, afternoon boozer, and all-around scagbag with a filthy mouth, a loaded pistol, and a lust for life on the ranch.
Though Cooper's great love was horse breeding--he'd made some money on it over the years--he had discovered a second, much more lucrative profession later in life. As a financial "consultant," he taught others how to live up to the motto he had lived by in his own five divorces and six or more bankruptcies--screw the creditors.
Perhaps his greatest screwing ever was that of his own wife. Deborah Cooper, a former secretary of his who bore him two children and, in return, got tossed around a lot by her drunken husband--often enough so that she kept walking when her husband locked her and their kids out of the house one night. But that was when the misery really began.
When Mrs. Cooper filed for divorce in June 1984, Cooper refused to pay her one penny in alimony or child support. When she began fighting for money in the courts, he claimed to be broke and unemployed. When she went after community property, he said the couple's 519-acre ranch--worth $1.6 million--was owned by one of his companies. When she brought up the 674 showhorses--which the bankruptcy trustee had to step in and save from starvation--Cooper claimed they were owned by still another one of his companies, both of which were in bankruptcy.
Just before Mrs. Cooper filed for divorce, her husband filed for personal bankruptcy, apparently in order to dodge a possible judgment in an unrelated civil suit--filed by a Denton waitress whom Cooper hit with a piece of broken glass before grabbing her by the hair and pushing her into a table. He was convicted for that assault and placed on 12 months' probation.
Cooper's expertise as a "consultant" and "workout specialist"--i.e. a desperate man's last resort--was in high demand in the mid-'80s when fellow high rollers were crashing and burning all over the place during the Texas oil and real estate bust. By 1986, Cooper had so much business that he recruited an entire law firm, Simpson, Dowd & Kaplan, to execute his handiwork on behalf of his clients.
To everyone else, Cooper was a scum. But to Sam Feldman, Gail Cooper was a mentor, a friend--a guru, no less.
"Sam was enamored with Gail Cooper from the day he met him," recalls one of Feldman's old friends and former real estate partners. "He just was like enamored with him--mesmerized by the guy--and everything Sam did after he met Gail, he wanted to do with Gail. It was always, 'I've got to call Gail; I've got to call Gail.' And I said, 'You know, stay away from Gail.' I was terrified of the guy because--one, I thought I would get shot and, two, it seemed that everything Gail did was under the table, and God, that just scared the shit out of me."
Feldman was first introduced to Cooper back in the mid-'80s when Feldman was looking for someone to help him unload a famous Austin motel called the Villa Capri. Back in those days, Feldman was a player--doing that '80s big high-wire act in real estate. His pudgy fingers were in a lot of huge real estate deals, he drove around town in a sky-blue Rolls Royce, and while he was shopping the Villa Capri, he was building his wife and two kids a $700,000 house off Hughes Lane in a new neighborhood for the North Dallas nouveau riche.
Feldman's Midas touch seemed to be the result of two things--he was an intensely charming and likeable fellow, if not a brilliant businessman, and he had very wealthy friends and relatives who inexplicably kept investing in his business deals. Feldman's grandfather was the late Meyer Rachofsky, a senior officer of Mercantile National Bank at Dallas, and Feldman's father owned a lot of liquor stores in South Texas. Feldman's best friend was Barry Zale, grandson of the founder of the famous Dallas-based jewelry chain. Zale got Feldman his first job working in the real estate division of Zale's. And when Feldman left there to do real estate on his own, his seed money--which he sowed extremely successfully in several raw land deals in Austin--came from his dad.
"Sam's claim to fame was who he knew," says his former friend. "He had the ability to open a lot of doors--he was smart enough to know the people who could introduce him to someone else who could introduce him to someone else. He was a consummate networker."
When the real estate market crashed, though, Feldman quickly turned out to be a fair weather friend. Court records show that, in a 1985 Arlington shopping center deal Feldman participated in with two of Barry Zale's cousins and eight other men, Feldman was the first to take a powder on the regular payments the investors were required to make to the partnership. When Feldman regularly ignored his obligation, his partners sued him for the money. Feldman's response in court papers was that he was "fraudulently induced" into signing the partnership agreement.
Says one of Feldman's partners on that deal, which eventually went into foreclosure: "I don't think very much of the gentleman. You know, if your partners blow out on you, the banks look at you for the money. I was left holding the bag with some of the others."
In no time, with so many banks and partners chasing Feldman for such big bucks--$13 million, according to the bankruptcy records--he simply threw up his hands in December 1988 and filed for personal bankruptcy. Gail Cooper and his lawyer buddies at the firm that was now called Simpson, Dowd, Kaplan & Moon handled the bankruptcy. Six months later, Feldman's wife left him and filed for divorce.
Feldman's former friends and partners--scads of them--were reeling. "So there we were with the S&Ls looking at us to pay all these debts," says Feldman's old friend, "and we just shit in our pants. What disappointed me about Sam was that--without so much as a blink--Sam just went and filed bankruptcy. It was certainly his prerogative--he didn't do anything wrong--but a lot of deals I got into because he got me involved in the deal. And I just felt like friends stick together. Sam didn't have any loyalty. I see it as a lack of character."
One person Feldman stayed absolutely loyal to was his friend and mentor Gail Cooper. "I'll bet he talked to Gail 10 times a day," Paul Fielding recalls. "He talked to him about his divorce, the business, anything that he wanted to talk about. They were best friends."
Fielding was not a part of the Cooper-Feldman crowd. But the two old school chums had stayed in touch, and when their livelihoods bottomed out in 1988, they decided to become a team.
Which means Fielding was destined to meet the fix-it man, Gail Cooper--whom Sam Feldman quickly called to the rescue in the spring of 1992 when Mason Rich plunged into financial trouble. The only solution, in Feldman's mind, was to put Gail Cooper on a monthly retainer of $5,000 and let him work on the problem. "Sam said Gail had done wonderful things with his bankruptcy," Fielding recalls. "And that's all I knew about the guy. I didn't know Gail Cooper from Adam."
It was Gail Cooper's solutions to Mason Rich's problems that appear to have caused Fielding and Cooper to be indicted and Feldman to cop a plea, and--so characteristic of him--help the feds go after his friends.
What Fielding thinks of Cooper--and the work he did for Mason Rich--is not something he will discuss for the record. He is all too aware that Cooper is, for the time being at least, his codefendant in the indictment. Unless the case against Cooper is severed from his own--which Fielding's lawyer may try to do, depending on the trial strategy he comes up with--Fielding and Cooper will be sitting together at the defense table at trial. But what Fielding thinks of Feldman is another matter.
"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.
Glatstein is a serious financial player in Dallas. His company makes Mason Rich look like a lemonade stand--640 employees, more than 200,000 customers, and an annual net income of $14 million on $182 million in revenues. Glatstein suffers gladly neither fools, felons, nor financial shenanigans. For example, in 1991, when the Zale Corporation skipped one interest payment on a large number of bonds that Glatstein's customers in his former investment firm were holding, he and a battering ram of lawyers walked into a bankruptcy court 31 days later and filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Zale; 22 days later, Zale was on its knees and in Chapter 11.
Earlier that year, as fate would have it, Sam Feldman had found himself sitting on a plane next to one of Glatstein's investors. The two men began to talk, and soon the investor knew that Feldman was the president of a fast-growing type of finance company that was interested in raising some money for expansion. Consequently, on December 31, 1991, Glatstein and a group of investors he assembled gave Mason Rich $550,000, which was the seed money to begin marketing and growing the company. Although Glatstein knew nothing about the factoring business and had only one previous experience investing in a private company, one of his employees had thoroughly researched the factoring business, and even more importantly, Glatstein had made a few calls to Mason Rich's big-name investors--people whose names he recognized, such as investor Howard Rachofsky, Sam Feldman's cousin; Donald Zale, Feldman's best friend's father; and investment portfolio manager Gerald Ray, another Feldman cousin.
"I knew Gerald," says Glatstein today. "I knew Howard. I call them up. I called Don Zale."
Glatstein wanted information on Sam Feldman--the partner doing all the negotiating with Glatstein and the investors. Fielding--as Feldman liked to remind anyone who would listen--wasn't around very much; he was always off at Dallas City Hall playing councilman.
Glatstein was satisfied with what Mason Rich's investors told him. Feldman's only blemish was his real estate bankruptcy. "We didn't let it hold us up because so many people went into bankruptcy--in the boom to the crash," Glatstein says. "We didn't like it, but we felt like he would do what he said he would do."
Basically, what Feldman--and Fielding, of course--were supposed to do was use the new investors' substantial infusion of money wisely, produce a reasonable rate of return, and provide regular financial statements to the investors.
Instead, within months of getting the money, $250,000 worth of bad Miller invoices had piled up--and more were on the way. "I find out about it, and I thought I was going to have a fit," Glatstein recalls. "What the devil is he doing over there? I said, 'Sam, tell me about this.' Sam was the one we were dealing with--I really didn't even know Paul. And Sam said, 'There are five invoices of $50,000.' I said, 'Why would you factor the second invoice without collecting the first?'"
But, factors say, that kind of overlap is the nature of the business. Besides, bad invoices are an unfortunate but common pitfall in the factoring business. "This is part of the risk of the business, my friend," says a factor who does not want to be named. "You don't ease into a fraud. It's like being hit by a flying Coca-Cola machine. 'Where did that come from?' If you did see it coming, you'd have tightened up on this guy."
In this case, there were two guys whom Fielding wishes they had tightened up on--Raymond Jones and Miller's Louis Winsett. Because it became quickly apparent through a lawsuit Mason Rich eventually filed against Miller that Jones and Winsett were at the heart of the problem.
In Winsett's deposition, he pleaded the 5th Amendment to all the key questions involving the invoices. In a motion Winsett's lawyer filed just before the Miller case was set to go to trial in spring 1995, the judge was asked to forbid the lawyers from giving "any mention, reference, comment, statement or allusion to any criminal investigation, whether ongoing or not, that relates to Mr. Winsett."
Winsett, who had somehow found the money to build a $900,000 palace of a home on six acres in Mansfield on a beer plant employee's salary, was quickly fired from Miller. Raymond Jones quickly filed bankruptcy. Fielding, half crazy with frustration, went to the Dallas County DA's office to try and press criminal charges against both men--but no one was interested. Feeling more and more hounded and oppressed by both Glatstein's screaming and the unresolved Miller lawsuit, Fielding and Feldman even paid a desperate two-on-one visit to Winsett's criminal lawyer, asking him to help them get their money back. The lawyer saw them to the door.
Miller Brewing Company never did let the case go to trial--it settled out of court, and the case was dismissed in late 1995. Fielding says Miller paid the entire amount that was owed.
Shayne Moses, a Fort Worth lawyer who handled the case for Miller, declined to comment.
Anyone who has seen Paul Fielding talk money at City Hall--intricate public financing arrangements, bond indebtedness, tax abatements--would think that Fielding is either an economics professor or a titan of private industry. Add a few other ingredients--the regal manner in which he carries himself, the fact that Mason Rich is a fancy-sounding name, and that it does something financial that hardly anyone understands, and you become certain he is a financial ace.
But you would be wrong.
Fielding and Feldman have strikingly similar, equally unsuccessful track records when it comes to business and earning a living. Although Fielding claims to have made "a very significant amount of money" in the boom years of the Dallas real estate market, he declines to reveal his best annual income from those days.
In any case, a few years later, Fielding joined the ranks of the walking dead in real estate. Just as he won't reveal the money he made when he was up, Fielding won't say how much he lost when he was down.
"I can show you a demand letter from NCNB for $8 million--and this was one deal," Fielding says coyly. "It busted me, OK? It cost me everything. In retrospect, I probably should have done what everyone else did--buy a big house, pay cash for it, do all the things one could do in a bankruptcy that are legal to avoid the creditors. But that wasn't the way I was raised. If you borrow, you pay it back. I settled and paid back everyone I owed money to. And I put what was left into Mason Rich."
Courthouse records do show only two outstanding debts for Fielding: One is a $92,464 outstanding judgment against Fielding for legal fees incurred by DART in its successful defense of a lawsuit Fielding personally filed against the transit agency to protest former director Charles Anderson's severance package.
The other debt is a $25,000 personal loan that Fielding's father, Don Fielding, made to him in December 1993 so that Fielding and Feldman could hire attorney Chuck Meadows to go talk to the feds. The collateral for the loan is Fielding's $219,000 North Dallas duplex.
Fielding's initial investment in Mason Rich in 1988--all the money he had in life--was $50,000, he says. Feldman invested no money, Fielding says, but took a significantly higher percentage of stock and the title of president to Paul's vice-president. Fielding didn't begrudge him that. After all, Feldman was the one who came up with the idea of forming the company; he had executed the concept and recruited most of the original investors.
Eight years later, Fielding concedes he's as broke as ever. He's not working, and the quality of his legal defense relies solely on his father's generosity. (Fielding's grandfather founded the successful National Shoes stores, which Don Fielding still owns and operates.)
Although Fielding refuses to disclose what his annual salary was at Mason Rich these last eight years--"it's just not the general public's business," he says--according to a 1990 company tax return filed in a legal case, Fielding earned a salary of $42,000, and Feldman earned $62,000. Five years later, according to a copy of a Feldman deposition taken in the same lawsuit, Fielding was at $52,000--Feldman at $86,000.
Clearly, Fielding and Feldman did not have the resources or the business experience to fight Miller Brewing and David Glatstein at the same time. They were desperate men in a desperate situation--and there was only one solution for that in Feldman's mind. He turned to his mentor, Gail Cooper.
"I could never figure out who this guy was, or why he suddenly seemed to be running the company," says Glatstein of Gail Cooper, who began running Mason Rich board meetings. "And the more we asked why, the less we'd find out."
Under Cooper's tutelage, bizarre hide-and-seek games began happening with the finances of the company--none of which would have been detected except that Glatstein finally hauled off and hired two lawyers--the husband-wife team of Michelle Roberts and Jonathan Smaby--to go to court and demand that Mason Rich turn over its books. Since the Miller problem had first surfaced, Glatstein had been demanding to see Mason Rich's corporate records--at the very least, he was supposed to be getting financial statements on a regular basis. Feldman and Fielding refused to do so; only a couple of financial statements were sent, according to court records. Fielding resented that Glatstein was trying to get involved in the day-to-day financials and run the company.
"If he doesn't like the way a company is being run, or he doesn't like the return on his investment, he simply destroys it," Fielding says. "That's what he does--destroys companies. If we had started letting him get involved in the day-to-day business, it would have been a disaster."
Instead, they let Cooper run things. Which also led to disaster.
Gail Cooper's previous disasters had been covered by only one media outlet, the Dallas Business Journal. Now, David Welch at the Journal would be the only paper to write about Cooper and his latest client, Mason Rich.
The rest of the media, including the Observer, didn't see the significance of the story--didn't see how a shareholder dispute had much to do with Fielding's role as a city councilman.
But the hypocrisy issue should have been impossible to miss. The city's fanatical fiscal conservative with the big stick about openness and honesty was neither open, prudent, nor honest with his own shareholders and their money--people, no matter what you thought of their style or temperament, to whom Fielding clearly had a fiduciary responsibility. While Fielding would be the first to tell you that a person shouldn't borrow money and be irresponsible with it, that was exactly what was happening with the Glatstein investors' money.
Cooper's games with that money were obvious; his own divorce and bankruptcy records set the pattern: Create a company, liquidate another, shift the assets around and around like musical chairs to keep them one step ahead of the creditors.
The most obvious example of this at Mason Rich was Cooper's work with Skilldex--one of Mason Rich's fledgling clients, which Feldman specifically asked Cooper to help.
Skilldex had sold Mason Rich uncollected invoices totaling $238,000. To make it look as though Mason Rich wasn't in the hole for all that money, Cooper and Feldman converted some of the debt into a note--a loan--from Skilldex to Mason Rich. Then Skilldex sold the note to a new "company" Cooper set up called Impact Media--supposedly in exchange for Skilldex's equipment. Impact Media, whose address was Cooper's ranch, was a "company" whose president was a man named Robert C. Vaughn, Cooper's accountant and longtime running buddy, and whose registered agent was a man named Christopher Cosby--Cooper's son.
Glatstein and the other investors were sent letters stating that the Impact Media note was valid and would be repaid with interest. Then several weeks later, Feldman told Mason Rich's auditors that the note was no good and would not be paid.
The Skilldex flip is the discovery of a CPA named Jeff Baliban with the downtown firm Campos & Stratis. Glatstein's lawyers hired him to study all the documents that had been produced in the Glatstein suit. Baliban produced a lengthy sworn affidavit sketching out the Skilldex scam.
Between the Miller suit and the Glatstein suit, it's now a full-blown, mud-slinging, old-fashioned investors war. So far the only winner is the FBI. In the five years the feds have been scrutinizing Fielding, no one has handed them such a neatly typed, perfectly organized laundry list of allegations.
Last June, when Mike Bradford, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, held his shocker of a press conference, he had in his hand an impossibly complex 44-page indictment. Later I found that nearly two-thirds of the feds' case was cribbed from the civil court files for the Glatstein and Miller cases.
Specifically, the feds allege that Cooper, Fielding, and Feldman conspired to defraud Glatstein and his investors. Among other things, those three men had come up with bogus transactions to try to make it look on paper as though the company were healthier than it really was. That was conspiracy. That was mail fraud.
The Skilldex transactions were a big part of the Fielding indictment, and it's clear from the many examples of money being shifted around like so many checker pieces that a case can be made that the Glatstein investors were being ripped off. But interestingly enough, almost every example they cite involves Feldman and Cooper. It's obvious that Cooper was orchestrating and Feldman was executing. What's unknown is how much Fielding knew.
The weakest part of the indictment involves Miller Brewing Company. Much of what the feds are alleging sounds as farfetched as Fielding's theory that the downtown powerbrokers orchestrated his indictment. The feds say that Fielding and Feldman were part of the invoice manipulation that threw Mason Rich into disarray. They knew the invoices were bad while they were buying them from Raymond Jones in 1992, the feds say--it was part of a scam to defraud Glatstein and the other Mason Rich investors.
It will be interesting to see what they use for evidence, because the notion that Fielding and Feldman would have been buying receivables they knew they weren't going to get paid for is similar to alleging that they opened their office window and threw a couple hundred thousand dollars out of it. It was still their company that they had built--despite Glatstein's money--and unless Fielding and Feldman had signed some kind of suicide pact, it's pretty hard to believe they would do something so patently insane.
"My father was one of our commercial paper holders," says Fielding, bristling at the logic. "So what the feds are saying, in essence, is that I wanted to screw my father."
Even if all the allegations were true--that Fielding and Feldman and Cooper were going to bleed all the money out of the company and disappear to a tropical place--it's extremely hard to believe that the feds would pay any attention to this if Fielding were not a sitting city councilman, especially one they'd been investigating for five long years without result.
"My first reaction is the same as my last reaction," says SMU corporate and securities law professor Alan Bromberg, who has written many of the state's securities laws and is nationally recognized as an expert in the industry. The Observer asked Bromberg to review the Fielding indictment and give his opinion about the severity of the crimes for which he is charged.
"This is just an unusual thing for the feds to be involved with at a criminal level," Bromberg says. "It's pretty clear it's a dispute between shareholders in a private company--they didn't like the way the company was being run and the way the finances were being handled and reported. And normally this would be a private suit for damages and maybe a civil enforcement suit by the SEC or the state's securities board. But like the SEC, the state people don't get involved unless a big segment of the public has been defrauded. They don't focus on what is essentially a big, private investor getting skinned."
The most damning part of Fielding's indictment, by far, is the EDS allegation. It states that Fielding used his official position as a councilman to coerce Electronic Data Systems into awarding a $1 million janitorial contract to a client of Mason Rich's named Handy Andy. Fielding had the leverage to do this, according to the indictment, because EDS was trying to get the city council to approve a controversial zoning change at the corner of Forest Lane and Hillcrest Road.
None of the charges in the indictment shocks people like this one--especially the people who were directly involved in the protracted negotiations that took place over several years between EDS and adjacent homeowners. EDS wanted to sell the 177 acres that its old headquarters building currently sits on to a developer for mixed use, but since the zoning was for single-family residences only, EDS had to get permission. It had been denied that permission before because of homeowner opposition.
On this latest EDS request, EDS had approached the homeowners early on with an olive branch--let's do this together, EDS said. When the homeowners and EDS came together to City Hall--presenting a united front--and asked the city council for permission to approve the zoning plan because all sides were happy with it, it was not only approved unanimously, it was hailed as the most successfully executed zoning case in the history of Dallas.
Carol Scott, Fielding's appointee on the city plan commission, recalls how confounded she was on learning of the EDS allegation. "When the FBI came to see me at my office with their little badges and little hoo-fra-fra and told me what they wanted to talk about, I looked at them and said, 'This is ridiculous. This is a joke. There's no need for bribery in this zoning case.'"
Fielding puts it another way: "The day I found out the FBI was investigating EDS was the happiest day of my life. How the hell could I extort anything out of EDS? That's insane. They're a $10 billion corporation. Plus, I couldn't have stopped that zoning case if I'd wanted to. It was a done deal--everyone supported it."
What the feds allege is that in August 1992 Fielding asked EDS to hire Handy Andy janitorial service, owned by Ron Jones. Then Fielding called EDS shortly thereafter to complain that Handy Andy was not getting a fair shake in the bidding process. Then, after Handy Andy got the bid, Fielding supposedly called EDS to ask for a price increase on the contract--it was too low for Handy Andy to make any money. Later, when EDS called Fielding to complain about Handy Andy's work, Fielding urged EDS to keep Handy Andy on contract anyway.
The feds also claim that once Handy Andy got the EDS contract, Fielding pressured Handy Andy to buy cleaning products from another company that Mason Rich factored called Greenchem. The owners of Greenchem were Roger Hoffman and Paul Fielding.
Fielding's version of events is that the first he heard that EDS was considering giving Handy Andy a janitorial contract was in fall 1992--he was told about it, he said, because EDS wanted an assurance from Fielding, in his role as factor, that Handy Andy had the financing to execute the contract.
"Ron Jones told me they had bid on the job, and would I mind talking to Robbie Robinson because he felt they were concerned about their financials," Fielding says, referring to the man who headed the real estate division for EDS. "And I don't remember whether I called Robbie or Robbie called me."
Fielding confirms there were subsequent conversations between him and Robinson regarding Handy Andy. "I called Robbie Robinson several times after the contract was awarded, because Handy Andy was having problems," Fielding says. These minor problems included storage of cleaning supplies and getting the lights turned on for the janitors.
And what about the allegation that Fielding asked EDS to raise the contract price after it was awarded? "When Robbie and I talked about whether or not the financing was in place, Robbie expressed a concern to me that the bid was too low," Fielding says. "I said I couldn't express an opinion on it--what do I know about pricing janitorial service?"
On the issue of forcing chemicals on Handy Andy, Fielding says it was a natural suggestion--not a squeeze. "One of the things we tried to do with minority companies was to get them to cross-pollinate and be there for each other in order to increase everybody else's business. Roger [Hoffman] was in the chemical business; Ron Jones was in the janitorial business--it seemed like a no-brainer."
It will not be clear until Fielding's trial what actually transpired--and it may not be clear even then, seeing as how there apparently are no wiretaps of conversations between Fielding and Robinson. It will be Fielding's version of events versus Robinson's. And then it will be Fielding's version of events versus those of Roger Hoffman and Ron Jones--both of whom declined, through their attorneys, to be interviewed for this story.
But no matter what version is correct, it helps to have a victim to convince a jury there's been a crime.
"EDS is, in our opinion, a victim of having been extorted in this case," Bradford told reporters at the press conference. "They were pressured by Mr. Fielding to take the actions that they took...As a result of being pressured by Mr. Fielding, they did award a contract. Mr. Fielding extorted--took advantage of his official position."
If EDS was feeling victimized, though, they sure weren't acting like it. In fact, EDS was so happy that several weeks after the city council voted unanimously to approve the zoning case, EDS threw a thank-you party for Paul Fielding, Carol Scott, and about 25 homeowners at the University Club in one of the Galleria's office towers.
"It was a very fancy deal," Fielding recalls. "It was a sit-down dinner with pre-printed menu cards at every place setting. They spent some money on that."
Robinson presented Fielding with a thank-you gift--a crystal paperweight from Tiffany & Co. with "EDS" engraved on it. "If they were feeling extorted," Fielding says, "I sure couldn't tell it."
Nor were individual company officials acting very victimized three months after the zoning deal was done--that's when EDS CEO Les Alberthal and EDS senior vicepresident and former general counsel John Castle and senior vicepresident Stuart Reeves all wrote $100 personal checks to Fielding for his campaign. Two months earlier, Robbie Robinson had given Fielding $50 for his campaign.
"I think you'd be stretching credulity to think that the general counsel of the company would be giving a campaign contribution to someone who had extorted the company," Fielding says.
EDS did not go to the feds--the feds went to EDS, and apparently no one's heart sunk more than Robbie Robinson's, because he had been enormously proud of his work on the zoning case.
Although EDS officials would not agree to be interviewed for this story, one of the board members smiled when I asked him how in the world Paul Fielding could coerce EDS.
"Paul Fielding couldn't coerce us into doing anything," the man said.
Well, that's what the prosecution is going to allege at the trial, I told him.
"I don't think you'll see us disagreeing with anything Paul Fielding has to say on this," he responded.
We'll see. Evidently the feds have other expectations, though, because EDS officials have signed an agreement to cooperate with the government.
But none of that gets Fielding off the ethical hook. It is troubling to hear that Fielding ever discussed anything concerning Handy Andy with anybody at EDS while EDS was applying for a zoning change. Fielding, the council's self-appointed ethical watchdog, was the councilman whose district the project was in.
On the basis of conflict of interest, Fielding should have recused himself from the zoning case. But in Fielding's opinion, he had every right to vote on the EDS zoning change--he even made the motion on it.
"If you don't have a direct financial interest on the issue at hand, you have to vote on it," Fielding says.
Fielding's company was entitled to 7 percent of that $1 million contract between EDS and Handy Andy. It is ludicrous for Fielding to think that any citizen would want him negotiating with EDS on a zoning case with his left hand while his right hand was negotiating a private business deal with them.
That Fielding doesn't see this as a conflict--but sees just this kind of ethical problem so perfectly when someone else is caught doing it--is beyond disappointing. It is grounds for questioning everything else he's done behind the scenes at City Hall.
I know now, in retrospect, that there was nothing innocent about Fielding's attempts two years ago to get Feldman on the board of the South Dallas Development Corp., which was created, in part, to help small minority-owned businesses succeed south of the river. That effort failed because some people rightly pointed out that Feldman was only interested in getting on the board to recruit new business for Mason Rich.
Back then, I didn't believe it--I didn't know what Mason Rich was, and I believed that Fielding would never let himself do anything that could be perceived as self-serving. Now I know that Feldman and Fielding were constantly trying to think up new ways to get business in the minority community.
So what was Fielding doing trying to get Feldman on the SDDC? It's all too obvious. Which is why Fielding has got to go--sooner rather than later.
It is impossible to know how much evidence federal prosecutor Mike Savage has at his disposal. Perhaps there are smoking guns--shocking wiretaps, incriminating letters, documents that leave no doubt that Fielding should go to prison for a long, long time. But I doubt it.
The EDS situation was not extortion--it, sadly enough, was business as usual at Dallas City Hall, where more people than we'd like to think get favors at many levels for many reasons. It's not a quid pro quo--it's not bribery or extortion--it's much more subtle. But just as insidious.
The Miller Brewing Co. situation was fraud, but the two guys who committed it aren't going to jail--in fact, they'll be star witnesses in the trial of the guy who didn't commit it.
The Skilldex situation is downright smelly. Cooper played games. Feldman executed them. Fielding says he didn't know what Cooper was doing--and while I find that hard to believe, even if it's true, is it just and right that Feldman go free while Fielding goes to prison?
Finally, who is the victim here? Sure, some wealthy investors got in a bad business deal and were, if not defrauded, screwed out of their money by either stealth or stupidity.
But prison time?
"It's not just the Coopers we want to stop here," says a source with the feds. "It's the people who choose to do business with them."
But if one of those people wasn't a sitting city councilman, you can bet that he wouldn't be on trial come April.
On the 145th day of his indictment, Paul Fielding is sitting at his dining room table, sipping a can of Dr Pepper and struggling to overcome his natural inclination not to discuss his private life.
"The worst was having to tell my parents," Fielding says, referring to his indictment. "I went to their house and sat down in the den, and I just told them I was going to get indicted for whatever it was they thought I had done. They were understandably upset and concerned about me. I don't think Mother was very happy about it, but I think she held up well."
And Fielding? How did he hold up during those days? "I think it probably took 60 days to get over feeling bad," he says. "It's a very depressing scenario. If I'd done something, I guess I wouldn't have felt so badly about it."
Listening to him speak, watching a seemingly pained expression cross his face, I found myself trying to feel sorry for him. But Fielding kept getting in my way.
"Did you see the Newsweek magazine that just came out with its list of the 25 most dynamic mayors in the country?" he said a few moments later, chuckling--he was clearly enjoying himself now. "Well, guess who wasn't on it? Never mind that the mayor of Laredo was on there. I sent a copy of the article to every city council member and the mayor--just as an FYI, of course."
That's the Paul Fielding we know--the one who will prompt no one at Dallas City Hall to shed a tear if a jury decides to put him in striped coveralls for a while.
Even his father despairs over his son's personality. "It's titillating for him to be so nasty to someone," 74-year-old Don Fielding told me at his home, just a mile or two away from his son's. "He'd rather say something nasty than nice. If only he'd gotten his mother's sweetness. She is the sweetest, loveliest lady I know. I've always told Paul, 'If only we'd run your mother for public office.'"
If they had, you can be sure the family name would not be soiled.
And that's the shame of it all. Fielding has taken a lot of people with him down this depressing path--a lot of people who would have sworn that Fielding could never do anything even remotely questionable, let alone illegal. I was one of those people: I admired his populist stands, his eloquence, his passion. Most of all I enjoyed his humor--the quick turn of phrase, the perceptive aside. He was an excellent source for me at City Hall.
Now he's just Al Lipscomb--just another drain on the public trust; another political parasite who mixes public responsibility and financial opportunity like they were tequila and triple sec. Down the hatch.
No, it's no longer strange that the conservative, white Republican from North Dallas and the liberal, black Democrat from Oak Cliff are two of the oldest, closest friends on the council.
They even have the clueless part down pat.
"You don't think I've committed a crime, but you think I've done something wrong," Fielding told me this past Monday as we debated his ethics, his voice filled with exasperation. "Well, I don't think I've done anything immoral, improper--or fattening.
"Compared to 99 percent of the people in government today, I'm Caesar's wife," he said. "If the standard you seem to be setting for my behavior is the standard, then no one is ever going to run for public office."
Actually, Paul, it's the standard you once set.