By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
From Harden's, Collins', and Ronquillo's descriptions, the bid to persuade Harden to quit played like a poor poker player's bluff. When they reached the lawyer's downtown office, Harden recalls, Ronquillo was cordial. "Marcos asks, how am I doing. I said, 'You tell me, Marcos, how I am doing?'" That's when, Harden recalls, Ronquillo started to do the superintendent's bidding. "'Well,' he said, 'I just got this very antsy call from the superintendent, and she wants me to draft this letter about you proposing to resign.'"
Harden says he called the bluff. He told Ronquillo that he wanted to know about the report reputedly in Gonzalez's hands. Both Ronquillo and Collins admitted that neither had seen it. At that point, Harden remembers, Ronquillo started to make vague statements about how things can get political. "Marcos says, 'Things just happen. Things sometimes get political. You're a good guy. If you move on, you'll do well.'"
Ronquillo denies saying anything like that.
But Harden says Ronquillo suggested that he draft a resignation letter. "'I'll just keep it,'" Harden recalls Ronquillo telling him.
Harden wasn't ready to give up yet. "I said, 'Marcos, a whole lot has happened in the last couple hours. I need to sleep on this,'" Harden recalls.
"OK, think of the things that you would like to place in the agreement," Ronquillo told Harden, according to the DISD administrator.
The issue of whether Ronquillo was doing Gonzalez's bidding is a significant one. The lawyer, who represented Gonzalez when she signed her contract with the school district, and his firm now have received more than $250,000 in legal fees from DISD. Ronquillo knows he cannot appear to have compromised his independence in any way.
Just hours after the meeting in Ronquillo's office, the lawyer was back, pressing Harden again. This time, Harden says, Ronquillo came to his office and told him that board president Kathleen Leos "was livid" and that "she wanted him to resign right now." She was angry because she thought the trade offered by Gonzalez was a done deal, Harden says. (Leos did not return phone calls for this story.)
Ronquillo denies specifically naming a board member, and says he only told Harden that a majority of board members were expecting his letter of intent to resign.
Harden says he never understood the urgency--although he suspected the whole team was trying to get a document in the record that would suggest he had left of his own accord in case they ever needed to get rid of him. "They didn't want it being tied back to them that I was run out," Harden says.
That evening, Collins admits, he left a message on Harden's home answering machine asking why he hadn't turned in the letter.
The next morning, on August 20, Harden says, he took a letter into the superintendent's office--but it was far from a resignation. It said that he wanted to raise his concerns about the tracking devices, Harden says. He recalls that the superintendent looked a little miffed.
"At first, she looked at the letter and was hesitant. She looked at it, and she said, 'I don't know.' But then Robby and Marcos said, 'That's OK.'"
Harden recalls: "I think she realized that I was saying that this tracking device was tied to the district. Her antennae went up."
Harden wanted to get the straight story; he believed, at that point, that he could trade on his onetime close relationship with Gonzalez to learn the truth. "I said, 'Dr. Gonzalez, I'd really like to meet with you alone.' She said, 'Fine, Matthew, we can talk.'"
Collins and Ronquillo left. And Harden says Gonzalez's tone changed dramatically. "She went into saying, 'Matthew, this is all board politics, it's not me. You're a great employee, and you're a hard worker. My day will come when they'll be on me, and it will be time for me to go.'"
A few days later when trustee Yvonne Ewell learned about the pressure on Harden to resign, Harden says, Gonzalez visited with him and again insisted that she had not pushed for his departure. Instead, Harden says, she told him that "she was jealous of the other women around me," and "she loved me and had wanted to marry me."
Gonzalez has offered more than a few hints publicly that Harden has done something terribly wrong that will soon be discovered. But Matthew Harden contends he has never stuffed his pockets at the district's expense, accepted kickbacks, or in any way participated in fraud. "Absolutely not, in any shape or fashion," he says.
Even if Harden is found somewhere along the way to have done something wrong, it is clear now that the superintendent tracked him and tried to force his resignation. The open question is, Why? The possible answers--sex, politics, or financial wrongdoing--promise to keep the pot boiling in what has become Dallas' seamiest soap opera.