By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Newly elected trustee John Dodd was outraged by the flub. "I watched the 10 o' clock news and got on my telephone immediately," Dodd says. "I wanted a letter written to the FBI apologizing. The whole issue is integrity, and the FBI is not going to be told what to do."
But other misstatements Gonzalez made at the same press conference don't seem at all accidental.
A day earlier, the Dallas Observer had reported that the superintendent's lavish renovations on her office suite had cost at least $50,000 more than she'd previously informed reporters and trustees. When documents detailing the expenditures were leaked to the Observer, Gonzalez claimed she'd never been told about the higher costs.
Gonzalez even corralled chief financial officer Matthew Harden into the press conference, where he stood behind her, somber and ashen-faced, as she pleaded ignorance about the cost overruns. "Desperate people do desperate things, but I have more faith in people to figure out what's going on here," Gonzalez had written in a statement released before the conference. "The fact is that the public can expect many more attempts to discredit me and my administration."
Harden, looking grim, spoke briefly. He concurred that the superintendent had not been advised of the extra costs. The renovations, in fact, were only supposed to cost $12,000--the figure Gonzalez had originally supplied to the media.
Just this week, however, Harden filed an affidavit in connection with black administrator Shirley Ison-Newsome's lawsuit against district administrators that tells an entirely different story.
"Shortly after Gonzalez became superintendent of the district, she ordered the renovation and refurbishment of her offices," Harden wrote. "Several meetings were held in which the cost of these renovations was discussed. I was present at those meetings. During those meetings, Gonzalez was informed of the ongoing costs and approved these expenditures. Those costs quickly rose to $63,000. They have subsequently risen to over $90,000.
"As the costs grew, so did the media attention, which included making public records requests," the affidavit continues. "The press made numerous inquiries into the actual cost of the renovations. I spoke with Gonzalez about these inquiries and personally observed their effect on her. Gonzalez was upset about the inquiries and concerned that they were casting her in a bad light."
Harden is willing to state under oath that his boss, the woman who the city hopes will clean up the quagmire of DISD, lied.
"...Gonzalez told the press she was not aware of any renovation costs over $12,000," Harden writes. "That statement was false. I was at meetings in which she was specifically made aware of and approved the costs of renovation."
Early on in her tenure as superintendent, Gonzalez had shown a flair for missing major details about financial matters. She told the board of trustees that her 13 cabinet members would foot their own transportation bills for a February 1996 retreat she planned to hold at the Santa Fe home of Charles Miller, a wealthy Houston investor. But weeks later, DISD documents show, the cabinet members submitted reimbursement forms for their airline tickets. It seems the taxpayers would pay for the $260 round-trip flights after all.
Call that an honest mistake, borne of inexperience. But on other occasions, Gonzalez's overstatements have risked considerable damage to people's reputations. After initiating her district-wide probe into fraud allegations, Gonzalez adopted the rhetoric of the righteous crusader--speaking often about massive contract kickbacks and widespread bid-rigging among district vendors. But so far, federal prosecutors have uncovered only small acts of malfeasance, certainly not the "millions of dollars in fraud" that the superintendent glibly forecasted. On August 6, U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins' office indicted 16 individuals, mostly custodians, who allegedly accepted $160,000 for services to the district that were never rendered.
Earlier in the summer, when WFAA-Channel 8 first aired a story about the Jerico Group, a black-owned furniture supplier that supposedly overcharged DISD for products, Gonzalez encouraged the suspicions without even bothering to fully investigate the facts. She told The Dallas Morning News the day after the Channel 8 report that she was "exploring the possibility of impropriety." Within weeks, however, Jerico owner RC Clack had written a persuasive account of why the news story had been unfair. His prices may have been higher than others, but he had clearly followed DISD policies in setting them. Gonzalez apologized to him privately but never bothered to redress the issue publicly.
Clack could not be reached for comment.
It's not as if Gonzalez doesn't care about her public image. In the volatile world of DISD, where--as one of her supporters says--public-relations "bombs go off in her office every day," the superintendent obsesses over publicity and spends a tremendous amount of energy and resources trying to make hers favorable.
In the budget she recently brought for approval to the board of trustees, for instance, Gonzalez bumped up the funds going to Robert Hinkle's communications division--which also handles internal matters such as school video services--by a whopping 177 percent over the previous year. Under her budget, his department gets a $6.2 million annual allotment; a staff of 50, up from 39 last year; and newly refurbished offices.
Perhaps in response to all of the embarrassing revelations about her financial gaffes--and a spate of leaked documents--Gonzalez has changed who handles the job of releasing DISD documents to the press three times in the last three months. At first, she channeled requests to the district's in-house lawyers. Then she had the press office handle them. Now she is paying outside lawyer Marcos Ronquillo, who negotiated her contract and is overseeing the internal fraud investigation, to do the job.