By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Longtime political gadfly Rick Finlan has plunged head first into the saga of the Peavy Tapes, and a collision with the U.S. Attorney's office could very likely ensue.
In a recent letter to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Finlan asserts that U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins cannot be trusted to turn over all of the tapes the department needs to investigate possible civil rights violations by members of the Dallas Independent School District board.
So Finlan sent the department his own copies of some tapes, which he says should help the department better review the activities of former board member Dan Peavy, former board president Sandy Kress, and current board president Bill Keever.
Finlan, however, won't say how the tapes were made or how he obtained them, and is virtually challenging Coggins to investigate whether Finlan is distributing illegally wiretapped conversations, a possible violation of federal law.
Finlan's latest move adds yet another curious chapter to the long-running tale of the Peavy Tapes.
Those who have followed the tale know that Finlan--a relentless litigant against DISD trustees--previously asserted in court documents that he knew, at least partially, what was said on the notorious recordings.
The tapes, illegally intercepted and recorded telephone conversations made by a neighbor of former school board member Peavy, have already created a firestorm in Dallas' political, legal, and media circles. They contain hours of conversations between Peavy and others on the board and in the DISD administration. A snippet of one tape was mailed to school board members. Read publicly at a board meeting, the recording captured Peavy using racial slurs and ultimately forced him to resign.
But the contents of the rest of the tapes have remained a closely guarded secret, as Coggins and other attorneys try to keep from running afoul of federal law prohibiting dissemination of illegally intercepted recordings.
Coggins' office tried to use the tapes when it prosecuted Peavy on bribery charges. Although the federal judge presiding in the bribery case agreed to let the prosecutors use the tapes for impeachment purposes, the government lawyers chose to never play the recordings in court.
In late January--after a jury acquitted Peavy on the bribery charges--Coggins told the Dallas Observer that he was sending the tapes to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice for review. The prosecutor wants Washington officials to examine the recordings for possible civil rights violations.
Shortly before Coggins made that move, however, Finlan had claimed that he knew at least some of what is on the tapes.
In a brief filed in a separate lawsuit against DISD trustees and lawyers, Finlan claimed that Peavy told him about the tapes' contents. Finlan asserted that Peavy told him the tapes "would show that [former DISD board president] Sandy Kress, in fact, was 'far worse' than Peavy 'had ever been' with regard to discrimination against African-Americans." Finlan continued: "In fact, Peavy shared many of Kress' comments and alleged that Kress had demanded that regarding DISD committee appointments, he 'not see more than one black face' in any single committee meeting."
At the time, Peavy denied he had spoken substantively to Finlan about the tapes. Kress, who refused to discuss the contents of illegally recorded tapes, told the Observer in January: "I have absolutely no recollection of making that statement. I think it's a false statement."
But now Finlan has stepped in again--this time more directly.
The self-appointed watchdog of DISD has sent two tape recordings and one transcript to the civil rights division in Washington. In his cover letter, Finlan states that his tapes will "accurately reveal the corrupt system of government which exists at DISD." He adds later: "The civil rights and the voting rights violations found on such tape recordings are ongoing."
He sent the recordings, Finlan says in his letter to Washington, "because there is concern that the U.S. Attorney will not forward all of the pertinent tape recordings and transcripts involving Mr. Peavy, Mr. Kress, and Mr. Keever."
To support that skepticism about Coggins, Finlan argues that the prosecutor should have disqualified himself from the prosecution of Peavy even on the bribery charges because of Coggins' publicly acknowledged friendship with Kress. Indeed, Finlan tells the Justice Department officials in his letter: "An investigation into the conduct of the Dallas U.S. Attorney's office is warranted.''
Barbara Nichol, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office, says Coggins will not comment on Finlan's assertions.
Notably, there are some significant omissions in Finlan's letter to the Washington officials. He does not state, for instance, how or where he acquired the tapes that he has forwarded. Nor would he divulge that information in a telephone interview.
By sending the tapes, Finlan is effectively begging prosecutors to ask where and how he got the tapes. Was he a participant in the initial, illegal act of making the recordings? Or has he just used information from illegally recorded tapes--an act that itself could be deemed a violation of the law?
Finlan seems characteristically undaunted by the prospect of such inquiries. "If Paul Coggins wants my tapes, he can come and get them," Finlan taunts.