By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A Harvard Club of Dallas luncheon should be a cozy enough setting for Paul Edward Coggins Jr., Harvard Law '78. But even on this welcoming turf, 39 floors up in the Texas Commerce Tower, a question can fly in the window. Coggins, who for the past four years has been President Clinton's man in the powerful job of U.S. attorney for the Dallas-based Northern District of Texas, had just finished his talk for about 50 Crimson alumni at their January 14 get-together.
Everyone agreed, he was impressive on his subject, "Hot Issues at the Justice Department."
Then a woman popped the question.
"How the heck did Dan Peavy get off?" the impertinent alumna asked as white-coated waiters moved about the walnut-paneled dining room. "I thought he was guilty."
Two months earlier, a jury had acquitted the former Dallas school board member of federal bribery charges. Coggins' prosecutors alleged that Peavy took $459,000 in kickbacks from his friend and partner, insurance agent Eugene Oliver, to help him sell insurance to the Dallas Independent School District.
Coggins was momentarily rattled by the frankness of the woman's question, recalls Dallas lawyer Tom Melsheimer, a Notre Dame grad who nevertheless was in attendance. But Coggins recovered quickly to explain that "paper cases" such as Peavy's, which lacked cooperative witnesses, can be tough to sell to a jury.
"I've stopped second-guessing juries," Coggins went on to say, not so subtly shifting responsibility to the 12 citizens who let Peavy walk.
Although it's hardly fair to judge Coggins' 85-lawyer office by one courtroom loss, the Peavy case has left a particularly sturdy hangover as Coggins hits the midpoint of his term, which presumably will run through the end of Clinton's second term in the White House.
It was as big a political corruption case as Dallas has ever seen--the only one Coggins' office has handled that warranted major headlines. But in the end, Coggins' team lost badly in what some presumed to be a slam-dunk case. And nothing Coggins has said since the not-guilty verdict last November has put an end to speculation that evidence was held back, at least in part, to avoid embarrassment to a Coggins friend, former school board president Sandy Kress.
To make matters worse, within five months after Peavy strolled from the courtroom to a celebratory lunch across the street at Neiman Marcus, prosecutors in the neighboring Eastern District of Texas made nailing dirty Dallas pols look easy.
In the second week of his federal corruption trial in Sherman, Dallas city councilman Paul Fielding pleaded guilty to extortion and mail fraud, admitting he used his influence to force EDS Corp. to hire a client of his for a $1 million janitorial contract in return for his support on a zoning case.
Coggins' high-profile setback in the Peavy case did nothing to discourage critics who say he's been long on self-serving press relations and shorter on results in some much-touted target areas, including an initiative to ferret out health care fraud.
"He's had his ups and downs," concedes former Dallas Democratic Party chairman Ken Molberg, a long-time Coggins political ally.
Politics, or rather the perception of Coggins as a political animal, provides much of the fuel for his detractors, who can't help but notice the campaign-like fashion in which he moves about town. "Paul is the most political of any of the U.S. attorneys I have known. You get the idea he's purely into political advantage--all his news conferences, meetings with community people, political people," says one well-regarded defense lawyer who has practiced law in the area during the terms of five Coggins predecessors.
"He has his finger on the pulse of the office in case he wants to issue a news release," says the lawyer, who, like several others, declined to talk on the record because of concern that his views could hurt his clients.
Coggins' supporters--who in the legal community outnumber his critics--agree he has adopted a high-wire profile, but they say his office has an unblemished record of integrity and fair-mindedness. While these feds might not be setting the courthouse on fire, they're competent, the argument goes. Justice Department statistics show Coggins' office's win-loss record in 1996 was 996 defendants guilty, 9 not guilty, 85 cases dismissed--just above the average for the 93 U.S. attorney's offices around the country.
"Some people think he's publicity-oriented. To me, it's a shallow criticism," says defense lawyer Jay Ethington, who worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the late 1970s. "If he were using that office for political purposes, I'd be the first to bitch. That's not happening."
And even some Coggins detractors are willing to reserve judgment until he crosses the minefield of sensitive matters his office currently has before it. Federal investigations are under way into managers, contractors, consultants, and lower-level employees at DISD; voter fraud in Dallas County; and corruption in the Wilmer-Hutchins school district.
Presumably, his office is also directing an examination into fallout from the Eastern District's Paul Fielding trial. A videotape surfacing in that case allegedly showed Dallas city councilman Al Lipscomb dealing himself into a conspiracy to set up a sham minority contracting firm.
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.
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.
Morales, in his first year in office, appointed Coggins as a special assistant, retaining him at $200 an hour to represent the state in a lawsuit over treatment of the mentally retarded, as well as several other matters.
While Coggins was hard-wiring himself into Austin, his wife was hooking up with even more ambitious types in Little Rock. At a meeting of the board of Wellesley College, Montoya met fellow trustee Hillary Clinton, wife of the then-Arkansas governor.
The two couples became friends, and in 1992 Coggins co-chaired Clinton's North Texas campaign. "People complained that he [Coggins] hadn't paid his dues, but Paul's not an envelope-stuffer," says Molberg. "Publicity and fundraising were the things he has done for years. Working at the top. He does that very well."
After the inauguration, Coggins and Montoya were rewarded nicely for their trouble. She went to Washington as a White House staff member but resigned her job as assistant to the President for governmental relations after only seven months. There were complaints from unnamed "high-ranking Democrats" about her lack of experience and allies, but she insisted she wanted to return home to be with her husband and her daughter, Jessica, now 10.
Coggins balked at taking a job in the Justice Department, he says, and opted instead for the U.S. attorney post in Dallas.
Four years later, some of the most reasoned criticism of Coggins' performance comes from Charles Blau, a colleague from his old firm who likes Coggins. Blau's chief complaint is that he expected more. "Paul has taken a very conservative approach, with very conservative judgment," he says. "He hasn't shaken things up very much."
Several of Coggins' assistants say he's tinkered with the office's decision-making process, asserting more centralized control. Day-to-day matters such as when a case should be dropped or agreements to reduce sentences of cooperating defendants must now be reviewed by in-house groups or supervisors.
In all, it's not exactly a high-testosterone shop, several of Coggins' lawyers say. "You can pretty much rise or fall to your level of ambition and find a place," says one assistant, adding that Coggins is not a withering, to-the-woodshed sort of boss.
In terms of policy, Washington dictates some of a U.S. attorney's agenda, but he or she has room to set priorities too. Coggins has followed Reno's lead in making health care fraud--schemes to bilk Medicare or Medicaid--a stated priority, and with much stagecraft announced formation of a local task force in 1995.
But Blau, who has a lot of company on this point among defense lawyers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, says Coggins' task force has been picking off four-employee diet clinics while studies show there are much larger targets to hit. "They're moving at a snail's pace," complains Blau, a former assistant U.S. attorney who ran an anti-money-laundering task force in Miami and served as an associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan years. "I've had some collegial discussions with Paul, and he gives me the statistics, and I tell him, 'The quality of the cases needs to improve.'"
Coggins' most significant health care fraud cases to date have arisen from a Texas Senate and nationwide probe into National Medical Enterprises Inc., which pleaded guilty in Washington three years ago to various fraud charges and paid a record $370 million in fines and restitution. The company changed its name to Tenet Healthcare in 1995.
Over the past two years, six administrators, doctors, or counselors who worked for NME or its subsidiary, now-defunct Psychiatric Institute of Fort Worth, have been convicted in federal courts in Fort Worth of paying or receiving kickbacks for patient referrals, filing false claims with government and private health insurers, and falsifying records.
In the latest of those cases, Dr. Henry Bonham, a Fort Worth psychiatrist, was sentenced last week to seven years in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $3.6 million for a scheme in which he received kickbacks from PIFW, filed false claims, and covered up records. A Colleyville psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Gross, was arrested in London in May and faces extradition proceedings. He went on the lam after he was indicted in Fort Worth on charges of accepting $861,000 in kickbacks for patient referrals from PIFW.
Jim Moriarty, a Houston civil attorney representing 600 former psychiatric patients who are suing doctors and hospitals involved in the scandal, says Coggins is one of the few U.S. attorneys who didn't drop the ball in the matter. "The Northern District was putting these assholes in jail when a lot of prosecutors were sitting on their thumbs," he says. "In some ways, these prosecutions were brilliant...Psychiatrists are going to be talking about Bonham and Gross for a long time."
But he said he was disappointed that the biggest fish in the Northern District's net, NME regional director Peter Alexis, got off with only five years of probation. Alexis, who oversaw NME's Texas hospitals, admitted conspiring to pay a total of $40 million in bribes to doctors and psychologists in exchange for patient referrals.
Coggins says his office requested prison time for Alexis, who was cut a deal for cooperating with prosecutors and the FBI. Alexis could have received a 10-year sentence. Instead, Coggins says, U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall went outside sentencing guidelines when he ordered probation. Alexis was also ordered to pay restitution and required to give up art and antiques, Cartier jewelry, and furs.
"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.
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.
And the parts that were relevant?
"The question with the tapes was, 'Did their probative value outweigh the danger of having the case reversed on appeal?' I thought the trial team made the right call on that."
The saga of the tapes continues today. Coggins sent them to the Justice Department's civil rights division earlier this year for lawyers to review whether any of the tapes captured conversations of Anglo school trustees violating the rights of African-Americans on the board.
Coggins says he didn't handle that matter in-house for a number of reasons. "I thought it would be a good idea that people unconnected with the case take a look at the tapes for two, no, three reasons," he says. "First, we had just lost the Peavy case. Two, I had had a longstanding friendship with Sandy Kress, and I didn't want...well, that friendship played a determining role. Third, it made good sense to have Washington look at it because in most civil rights cases, one of the people on the team is from the civil rights division."
Coggins declines to say whether his office is directing an investigation of Dallas city councilman Al Lipscomb, who was linked to dirty dealings at City Hall in the Paul Fielding trial. But he acknowledges that his office has jurisdiction to do so. Prosecutors in the Beaumont-based Eastern District handled the Fielding case when Coggins recused himself because of a conflict of interest. Coggins' former firm, Meadows, Owens, at one point represented Fielding and his business partner, Sam Feldman, who pleaded guilty to mail fraud last summer.
A day before Fielding copped his plea, an FBI informant's secret videotape dropped the bomb on Lipscomb. The tape, played in court, shows the familiar African-American politico sitting with Fielding in the conference room behind the Dallas City Council chambers in November 1992. "We have to set up a company for him [Lipscomb] and have the damn thing certified" as a minority enterprise, Fielding says.
"I am the 800-pound gorilla," Lipscomb chimes in enthusiastically. "I can do it."
Eastern District prosecutors say that company began as a minority business front that later transformed into Lipscomb Industries, a legitimate if unsuccessful minority enterprise. The councilman and his lawyer have said the company always was a minority business and that Lipscomb has done nothing wrong.
The City Hall tape has been all over TV, and there are plenty of people who'd like to see Lipscomb made to explain it and myriad other business deals that suggest he has profited from his office.
If nothing comes of it, Coggins can count on more questions to liven up his Harvard Club appearances. Meanwhile, it hardly quells speculation for him to be seen socializing with Lipscomb.
In May, the two were spotted talking at the Blue Foundation banquet, an annual event in support of local law enforcement. Says Coggins of the chat in the Fairmont Hotel's Regency Ballroom, "It was just a hello."
Should he have been seen with a guy whom people think he should be investigating?
"What can I say?" Coggins replies. "I'm a friendly guy.