Publicity Paul

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

"Have we done enough on health care fraud?" Coggins asks rhetorically. "Absolutely not. We've barely scratched the surface."

Grumbling about the trickle of health care cases comes mostly from upper-tier lawyers who grew plump on the river of bank fraud cases in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Coggins says.

"They're angling for another source of rich clients," he adds. "We'll probably never get that bounty of cases, but we've had some impressive ones, and we have a bunch in the works, especially staged automobile accidents with involvement by doctors and lawyers."

Moving against health care fraud has come with a "steep learning curve" because of the complexity of medical billing, he says. Like about 90 percent of white collar cases, "they usually come to us through insiders and whistle blowers." Coggins' office received money this year to add a third health fraud prosecutor to the two already in place, which should help pick things up, he says. About 70 cases are currently in the works.

Compared to kickback schemers and medical fraud artists, street criminals are soft targets in the courtroom, most criminal lawyers say.M XCorner crack dealers, armed robbers, and teenage gangsters are usually too careless or simple-minded to evade detection, and too poor to hire first-rate lawyers once they're caught. The evidence--which federal agencies are capable of gathering in buckets--tends to be easy for jurors to grasp.

Coggins is going after this class of lowlifes like Kojak on a caffeine lollipop.

Statistics compiled for the Dallas Observer from computerized case files show that violent crime and drug cases account for just over 50 percent of the 1,495 defendants Coggins' office filed cases against in 1996. Nationally, 43 percent of federal cases involved drug trafficking and violent crime, according to the United States Attorneys Statistical Report.

Asked about his office's biggest cases, Coggins immediately names three trials that ended in death sentences for violent criminals.

The death penalty was extended to a wider array of crimes in the federal system--murder in the commission of a robbery or a carjacking, for instance--by the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994. Since that law went on the books, Coggins' office has secured more death penalties than any other in the country. Three out of the first four under the 1994 act were Northern District convictions. Of the 13 men on federal death row, Coggins put three of them there.

In Lubbock, ex-Army Ranger Louis Jones was sentenced to death in November 1995 for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Joy McBride, who was abducted from Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo. Since then, Orlando Hall and Bruce Webster have been sentenced to die for the kidnapping and murder of Lisa Rene, who was abducted from an Arlington apartment and killed in Arkansas in 1994.

All three of these high-profile cases could have been tried in state court. But Coggins stepped in and tried them in federal court under the new law.

Attorneys who specialize in federal death penalty cases say U.S. attorneys have wide discretion on whether to step in and bring capital cases, which are then reviewed at higher levels in the Justice Department.

"If a prosecutor is gung-ho for the death penalty, then those cases will be brought. These are capital cases in the Northern District of Texas, and they wouldn't have been [tried] elsewhere," says Kevin McNally, a Kentucky attorney with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project.

While federal jurisdiction is clear in cases such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber, many states--Texas included--have competing jurisdiction over most murder cases, McNally explains. "Texas and Arkansas have been very capable of trying, convicting, and executing murderers."

In the San Angelo case, Coggins says, the rural county that had jurisdiction did not have the resources or experience to try Jones. In the Lisa Rene murder, Tarrant County prosecutor Alan Levy says, the fact that the abduction began in Texas and ended in Arkansas made it more logically a federal case.

Beyond the death penalty push, Coggins' emphasis on violent crime was clearly demonstrated by the one case he picked to try himself. For his only courtroom appearance in four years, Coggins chose the district's first trial under the "three strikes" provision of the 1994 omnibus crime law, which ushered in life sentences for repeat violent offenders.

Last June, Coggins and an assistant buried Mark Linnear Hays, the "Ninja robber," under a mountain of proof, including fiber evidence, DNA, fingerprints, blood, and testimony from co-defendants. Hays, who had three prior convictions for robbery and burglary, was found guilty of breaking into a Dallas drugstore in April 1995 and pistol-whipping the store manager. He was sentenced to two life terms.

In dogging street crime, Coggins has fallen in line with the Clinton administration's major anti-crime theme. He is chairman of Attorney General Reno's advisory council's committee on violent crime, a group of 12 U.S. attorneys that consults on legislation and charts strategy with the FBI, DEA, and other law enforcement agencies.

When the Justice Department ballyhooed its violent crime initiative in a status report last fall, it singled out a push by federal and local law enforcement in Dallas to sweep crack-dealing gangs out of the Frazier Court housing project. Twenty-two people were convicted of firearms or drug charges.

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