Publicity Paul

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

Coggins says he sees himself more as a spokesman for federal law enforcement than a self-promoter. "We can't do our job without the press," he says. "For one thing, there's deterrence. We only prosecute a small percentage of people who do these crimes. The other is that it's hugely important that law enforcement make a case for itself. Years ago, the benefit of the doubt went to law enforcement personnel. Now we have to make our case to the public on a daily basis that what we are doing is right and that we're working as hard as we can."

As for making a home-away-from-home on the community breakfast and lunch circuit, he says, "I had a one-to-one meeting with [U.S. Attorney General] Janet Reno when I took this job, and she said, 'I don't want a U.S. attorney who sits in the office. I want a U.S. attorney who is out there working with organizations in the community.'"

A tall, angular man dressed in a gray suit, shadow-striped shirt, and sober red tie, Coggins bounces his loafer-clad left foot as he speaks. He possesses a sort of nervous energy and an unpretentious, talkative nature that makes him easy to like.

If Coggins' taste for ink and cameras has anything to do with aspirations beyond this job, he isn't about to say.

"I can't imagine anything better than this job, and you don't have it all that long," he says. "Sooner or later there will be someone new in the White House, and they'll get their own people."

He eludes the questions about possible plans or ambitions three more times. Asked bluntly if he has considered running for elected office, he finally says, "Really, I haven't ruled anything out."

Several Dallas Democrats say they offered Coggins the chance to run last year for Rep. John Bryant's seat in Texas' 5th congressional district, and he declined. Perhaps smartly. The swing district swung to Republican Pete Sessions.

The idea that Coggins wants to go places beyond this $115,000-a-year job springs logically from how far his ambition, brains, and big-time political connections have taken him so far.M XThe son of a college English professor and a grade-school teacher, Coggins grew up in Hugo, Oklahoma, and Portales, New Mexico. An outstanding student, he graduated summa cum laude from Yale in 1973, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and went on to law school at Harvard, where he met and married fellow law student Regina Montoya.

Coggins and Montoya, an Albuquerque native, settled in Dallas during the oil boom and hired on at large civil law firms--he at Johnson & Swanson, later Johnson & Gibb; she at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.

In fairly short order, Coggins deviated from the establishment-firm career path to spend three years as a federal prosecutor trying drug and forgery cases in the office he now heads.

For his first case, he recalls, he was assigned to prosecute a man who had parked illegally on federal property and had demanded a hearing before a federal judge. "I was mortified about losing a parking-ticket case in federal court; I didn't know how I'd live it down," Coggins recalls now. Lucky for him, there were photos to back up his case.

In 1986, Coggins moved on to federal criminal defense work with the small firm Meadows, Owens, Collier, Reed & Coggins, where he defended the likes of James Toler, a real estate developer snagged in the Interstate 30 condo fraud scandal, and Edwin T. "Fast Eddie" McBirney, fallen chairman of Sunbelt Savings Association.

In one of the oldest archived clippings in which Coggins' name appears, a Washington Post story on Sunbelt's plutocratic extravagances, Coggins comes off as a lawyer zealously working to put a good face on his client's rotten behavior. The article recounted a Sunbelt party in which McBirney dressed up as a king and served antelope and lion to hundreds of guests, and another company shindig where strippers performed various sex acts on the businessman guests.

Sure it looked bad, Coggins told the Post. But at least the strippers weren't paid with Sunbelt funds.

Coggins, who aspires after hours to be the next Mickey Spillane, tried capturing some of those high-flying, 380SL excesses in a pulp fiction paperback, The Lady is a Tiger, which was published by Avon in 1987.

These days, he says, all he hears about the out-of-print book are jibes from U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer, who likes taunting him with recitations of the racy parts. Page 132, no doubt: "At first she was content to slowly gyrate her hips. A hum idled on her lips. Before long, though, her buttocks hammered like restless pistons..." The metaphors get even clumsier as the story goes on.

Coggins, who writes early in the morning and on planes, says he is 300 pages into another book, which agent Jan Miller is shopping to publishers. Again in the crime fiction genre, it involves anti-government groups in Texas and a woman U.S. attorney as its protagonist, Miller says. Government rules say he can't make a dime on it, she adds.

Through the 1980s, Coggins and his wife worked overtime in various civic and Democratic party organizations, and Coggins served as Dan Morales' Dallas County finance chair during his successful campaign for Texas Attorney General in 1990.

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