By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Federal statutes have made selling even small amounts of crack cocaine a serious federal offense. "These are little cases on the surface, but big in terms of the law," says Tim Banner, a Dallas defense lawyer. "If you're caught with 50 grams of crack, you're gonna get 10 years, and you do all of it."
By most accounts, Coggins has been adept at coordinating this street crime war among local police chiefs, state prosecutors, and federal agencies. "We're glad we have 'em," says Norm Kinne, first assistant Dallas County district attorney. "They select a few cases we might otherwise try."
But some question whether the violent crime agenda is pushing attacks on more sophisticated crime off the table, crimes that nobody but the feds--benefiting from broad conspiracy laws and their powers to wiretap--can pursue.
"A few years ago, everything that walked in the door was a substantial drug case or a white-collar case. That's not what's happening now," says Frank Jackson, a Dallas defense lawyer. "Now there is an assortment of federal crimes, like felon in possession of a weapon."
Coggins' office is prosecuting armed robbers under the legal theory that one commits a federal crime for robbing a dry cleaner because the shop's chemicals came across state lines.
"What we pursue is a balancing act. You allocate personnel as best you can," says Coggins. "When we throw a few more bodies at drug prosecution, that's one or two more we take away from bank fraud, securities fraud; that's true."
And there are consequences.
Blau and other attorneys question, for instance, why Coggins hasn't assigned an assistant to specialize in environmental law. The Eastern District, which stretches from Beaumont to Greenville and Plano, has two lawyers in that specialty: one on the industrialized Gulf Coast and one in North Texas. Both are generating cases.
Says Coggins: "It's a valid criticism. We haven't done nearly as many cases as I'd like to, and we're not getting a lot of referrals."
If there's a hook that Coggins would like to wriggle off most, it's the acquittals in the Peavy case--that rich motherlode of a political corruption scandal that landed on his office's doorstep in 1995. That summer, WFAA-Channel 8 reporter Robert Riggs broadcast a series of stories alleging that school board trustee Dan Peavy used his position to line his own pockets while negotiating insurance contracts for the district. Coggins' office, which learned of the matter through Riggs' reports, launched an investigation through the FBI and indicted Peavy last year on 42 federal counts of bribery, conspiracy, and money laundering. His insurance agent friend, Eugene Oliver, was indicted as well.
Included in the government's evidence were 60 hours of tapes that a Peavy neighbor had intercepted with a police scanner, tapes that prosecutors said in pre-trial hearings contained discussions of financial arrangements between Peavy and Oliver.
The illegally intercepted conversations, which included Peavy muttering racial slurs and foul language, were sealed from public view after former school board president Sandy Kress secretly intervened in the case.
Peavy's defense attorney, Tom Mills, asked U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis to bar the tapes from the trial, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil Umphres, who led the trial team, won a ruling that he could still use the tapes to impeach the defendants.
Umphres put on a detailed case that traced the flow of 90 payments from Oliver to Peavy, highlighting repeated occasions where Peavy lied about receiving money. On the defense side, Mills acknowledged the payments, but argued that they were advances on future insurance business that Peavy was to bring Oliver outside the school district.
The tapes were never played during Umphres' surprisingly brief 30-minute cross-examination of Peavy. A few days later, the jury acquitted Peavy and Oliver of all counts.
"I was surprised not to see the tapes," says Mills now, adding that he thought Coggins' team was "overconfident" and "cocky."
Frank Jackson, the lawyer who represented the neighbor who taped Peavy, says the decision not to play the recordings could have been decisive. "I've listened to 17 hours of tapes, and they put a lot of things in context," he says. "There's a lot in there that would have pissed the jury off."
Jackson also was a little stunned to see the defense being permitted to put on a case that said, in effect, that despite all the money changing hands, the school system was getting good deals on insurance. "A good, creative prosecutor knows how to keep that kind of stuff out," Jackson says.
Following the trial--and further revelations about Kress being caught talking about manipulating the board to blunt the power of its African-American members--speculation in media and political circles has centered on the theory that Coggins must have been shielding Kress, a close friend, former law partner, and Democratic insider.
"I can't put that to rest," Coggins says. "I can say this. I picked the trial team, and it's their job to make the hard calls. They made the calls on using the tapes.
"I would have made the same call, probably."
For one, he says, the defense would have been given a major point to appeal if illegally wiretapped material was presented at trial. "Secondly, a lot of what's on those tapes has no relevance to what we were trying," he says.