Publicity Paul

U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins loves feeding his name to the papers. But what's he done that's news?

Whether that matter is heading to a grand jury, or nowhere, is one of the most pregnant questions in Dallas, though as the months slip by, it seems unlikely anything will come of it. This is just the kind of case Coggins-the-political-animal is loath to touch, his detractors say.

But Rick Finlan, a government gadfly who has been one of Coggins' most outspoken critics, says Coggins already has taken a bigger stab at official corruption than any other prosecutor in recent Dallas history. "He's going after it, even if Peavy was more than he bargained for," Finlan says. "He's already putting the fear of Jesus in everyone."

And while it's traditional to judge a U.S. attorney by the big white-collar cases like Peavy, that's hardly the yardstick Coggins has fashioned for himself.

Through Washington mandates and his own sense of priorities, Coggins has focused the office on drugs and street crime. "The first thing the public wants to do is stop violent crime," he says. To a greater degree than many of his peers, Coggins has made a priority of prosecuting drug dealers and violent repeat offenders--the ambitious dry cleaner bandit, for instance, who in the recent past would have been handled by state courts and county DAs.

"Clearly, drug cases and violent crime are huge on our dockets," Coggins says. "The attorney general has made it clear that violent crime is our first priority."

Coggins, a big Clinton team player, has embraced that shift and is even pushing it along in Justice Department circles, where he chairs an advisory group on violent crime. The critics, though, say this change of priorities has siphoned away resources from white-collar wrongdoing, which only the feds are equipped to fight.

Whether Coggins has aspirations for higher office or just loves to be loved, it's not difficult to find evidence of his obsession with looking good in the public eye. It sits in a beige folder on his press officer's desk. A single year's worth of press releases stuffs a file nearly five inches thick.

The single- and double-page announcements detail indictments, convictions, and sentencings in criminal cases large and small across the 100-county jurisdiction. Set up in 1876, when nabbing thieves and cattle rustlers was the order of the day, the Northern District stretches west from Dallas to Fort Worth, Abilene, Lubbock, and Amarillo.

Coggins' press operation is run by Barbara Nichol, an efficient, energetic woman who held the same position under Coggins' predecessor, Marvin Collins, a Reagan appointee. But Nichol's new boss pared back her non-publicity duties when he arrived in August 1993, leaving her more time to handle the press.

To that end, Nichol's operation faxes a release every day or two to newsrooms around the region. They almost always begin with the words "United States Attorney Paul Coggins announced today..." If those words aren't in the first paragraph, they're surely in the second.

The guilty plea in Dallas of "dead beat dad" Leonard Vedlitz to charges of willfully failing to pay child support warranted a "Paul Coggins announced" release on January 30, as did the sentencing of Jerome Jones for filing a false electronic tax return "resulting in false tax refunds exceeding $11,000" on July 9. On a slow news day, such as July 9, a release tipping reporters to the indictment of 19 people engaged in a check fraud ring was enough to land Coggins the lead spot on WFAA-Channel 8's 10 o'clock newscast. He trumpeted the bust in an on-camera interview as an attack on white-collar bank fraud.

"People around here roll their eyes and say, 'It's his office.' He can really lay it on," says one assistant U.S. attorney, who says the general feeling around the office is that it's not a good idea to upstage the boss.

Says another current assistant: "It worked for Guiliani," referring to the former U.S. attorney who drove a press conference-paved road to the New York City mayor's office.

Downright solicitous of members of the fourth estate, Coggins is known to follow up reporters' stories with personal notes. And he gets himself out there, unfiltered, with a once-a-month host spot on the KRLD-AM (1080) talk show "Legal Eagles," as well as occasional op-ed pieces in The Dallas Morning News.

A well-established criminal defense lawyer in Fort Worth who otherwise likes Coggins laments, "The number and content of releases and news conferences border, in my mind, on being unethical from the standpoint of turning the public against defendants. I guess when you're political in nature, you do that; you get your name out there."

Five years ago, Dallas literary agent Jan Miller said of her close friend Coggins: "He has a tremendous intellect and is also a good used-car salesman, meaning he can hustle the business. That's a gift God gives few of us."

The 46-year-old Coggins, talking at the conference table that fills up one corner of his large corner office in the Earle Cabell Federal Building, fields questions about his publicity effort in easy stride.

"To me it's the fun part of the job. I like to do it. I like reporters better than most attorneys," he says, schmoozing yet another reporter.

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