Hunter or prey?

Matthew Harden tells the story about his dark days in DISD

The assistant's comment could hold grave significance. If Gonzalez engineered a scheme to misappropriate funds and misrepresent their use, she risked violating federal laws as well as her contractual obligations to the board.

Steiging also told Harden's lawyers that Gonzalez was "excited" when he reported to her that he'd found some minor irregularities in the telephone equipment in her office. (Not coincidentally, this was the same day Harden told the superintendent about the tracking device.)

Although Steiging said he saw nothing alarming or conclusive about his findings, Gonzalez asked him to send over a signed copy of his report so she could release it to the press that night.

And Gonzalez did just that. She and Hinkle contacted two reporters whom she apparently viewed as friendly--Brett Shipp at Channel 8 and Nora Lopez at The Dallas Morning News. She recited a full menu of security concerns: her office might be bugged; the cops and FBI had advised her to change residences; and--Hinkle added for good measure--five administrators had found tracking devices on their cars.

A week later, DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander conceded that the tracking devices really amounted to nothing more than suspicions about tracking devices. Hinkle had found a dry spot on his car after a rainstorm where a tracking device might have been, Dahlander said.

But, for a time, the ploy succeeded. Reporters who might have followed up to find who put the device on Harden's car--the only car that was actually bugged--were suitably distracted.

Gonzalez had good reason to worry that Harden was leaking information to the press: He was. In July, before the tracking device was placed on his car, Harden passed to the Observer documents detailing cost overruns for renovations on Gonzalez's office.

The district had for weeks stonewalled reporters seeking records on the renovations, although Gonzalez insisted that the work had cost only $12,000. Harden's documentation, however, indicated that DISD had spent more than $90,000. Harden agreed to give the Observer copies of the documents on the condition that he not be identified, but has since released the Observer from that agreement.

"Hell, I had no other way of getting the truth out," he says. Why did he want the information out? "It was the truth about the renovation costs, and there was this constant denial, and the blame was being placed on people in my department who had worked hard on the renovation," Harden says.

Once Hinkle and Gonzalez learned that the Observer had the true numbers, they finally offered up a full accounting to other media.

The next day, Gonzalez began a campaign to shield herself from the controversy stirred by the renovation's true costs. She called a news conference. Thirty minutes before it started, she summoned Harden to her office, he says, and instructed him to stand behind her and support her story that she was uninformed about the cost overruns. In other words, lie, Harden claims. He had little choice but to go along, he says.

"I was put in a position in front of the cameras where the superintendent lied. At that point, I had some choices. I could say she is lying on camera, or I could try to defend her without lying myself. I tried that, and it didn't work," Harden says.

Fear of losing his $117,000-a-year job also played a part, his suit alleges.

Harden's job anxieties were well founded. On August 19, four days after Harden reported the tracking device to Gonzalez, Harden and other sources tell the Observer, the superintendent offered up a dubious trade--she would keep his name out of reports detailing mismanagement and fraud in the district if he agreed to resign and say nothing disparaging about her.

She made the offer using as go-betweens her special assistant in governmental relations, Robby Collins, and special outside counsel, Marcos Ronquillo. Collins concedes he went to visit Harden on that August day with a message from the superintendent.

"I told him she told me she had a report she might act on," says Collins, who claims that by going to Harden, he was just trying to help out an old friend. Collins had not seen the report, but says he wanted to be the one to convey the superintendent's message. When Harden declined to quit, Collins suggested they go visit Ronquillo.

At that time, Gonzalez had received reports reviewing how DISD handles contracts. While they included information on deals Harden helped negotiate, she had not received anything specifically naming Harden in wrongdoing. Nevertheless, Ronquillo says Gonzalez called him on August 19 and told him that Harden wanted to quit, and she wanted to give him some sort of release from future investigations. (How Gonzalez thought she could shield Harden from DISD's independent internal investigation as well as a parallel FBI probe is anybody's guess.)

Ronquillo insists that he told Gonzalez that his office's investigation could not be used as currency in her dealings with district personnel, and that he could not promise to release Harden from an investigation that wasn't complete. Yet he agreed with Gonzalez's request to talk with Harden about his possible resignation. Ronquillo says he did so only to clarify for Harden that neither his office nor the superintendent's had any authority to release Harden from an investigation--an impression that Ronquillo concedes the superintendent may have left.

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