Hunter or prey?

Matthew Harden tells the story about his dark days in DISD

Just a few weeks ago, Matthew Harden, Jr. conducted his business in virtual anonymity. As DISD's chief bean counter, Harden toiled in the shadows--as far from notoriety as he could possibly get.

But that was before a brash, go-get-'em superintendent named Yvonne Gonzalez came on the scene.

Now he's become the central character in a convoluted tale involving surveillance devices, an FBI investigation, allegations of sexual harassment--and even a collection of silly, steamy love notes. His story has overtaken the front pages and the nightly news, and Harden has found himself in the position of having his personal life hashed out on talk radio and in the streets.

To hear him tell it, he had no choice but to go public with his startling allegations against Gonzalez.

Last Saturday, just a few days after Gonzalez had announced her resignation, Harden sat at a long, polished-wood conference table in the downtown offices of his lawyers at Bickel and Brewer, a firm renowned for its barracuda tactics. Although he usually dresses impeccably in banker's pinstripes, Harden had gone casual this day, sporting a white, long-sleeved knit shirt and black jeans. He looked especially haggard, wearing the past few days like a mask.

During a seven-hour interview with the Dallas Observer, Harden spoke in detail for the first time about the events that prompted his decision to go public.

He even pondered aloud whether he should have just departed from DISD quietly without putting up a fight--thereby avoiding all the gossip and publicity.

"I'm just tired," he said with a shrug.
Harden's allegations first became public on September 12, when he filed a lawsuit in state district court. Harden, who is black, contended that Gonzalez, a Latina, slandered him, tried to force him to resign, and invaded his privacy by having a tracking device placed on his personal car.

Harden also claims in his suit that Gonzalez--with whom he once shared "a close professional and personal relationship"--ultimately pushed those ties too far. She whispered "lewd comments in his ear during important meetings," the suit claims, and sent him suggestive cards and notes, including one that read: "I've got those mean ol' low-down, wall-climbin', nail-bitin', teeth-gnashin', heart-breakin', mind-bendin', tear-jerkin', Lord I-miss-you-gotta-have-your-body blues!"

Those tawdry details ignited a firestorm on Dallas talk radio. Eagerly awaiting a he-said, she-said affair, radio callers enthusiastically debated whether a strapping 42-year-old man could possibly be the victim of sexual harassment. Women dug deep into the subtexts of the cards and notes Harden claims Gonzalez sent him, wondering just how far their relationship progressed.

Meanwhile, on the pavements in front of the DISD administration building on Ross Avenue, hundreds of racially motivated protesters have turned Harden into a symbol--of supposed attempts by blacks to discredit the popular superintendent.

Many Hispanics believe that Harden--whose own departments, which include management and maintenance, have become the subject of investigations by DISD and the FBI--has engineered a sinister plot to take down their charismatic leader before she uncovers his and other district administrators' misdeeds and illegal acts.

Conversely, some blacks cast Harden as a hero who represents their only opportunity to stop a systematic campaign to remove African-Americans from top positions at DISD.

A quiet man and 19-year veteran district employee who says he has never harbored any ambitions to lead the district, Harden was prepared to drop all of his claims against Gonzalez and turn over his evidence if the superintendent would, in exchange, simply resign.

Harden thought Gonzalez had fulfilled her part of the bargain last Tuesday night when the superintendent delivered a tear-filled statement announcing her resignation. "This day-by-day character assassination must stop," she said in a televised press conference in which she denied all of Harden's allegations. "The school district and the city are suffering for it. And I cannot allow it to continue."

But within hours, Gonzalez had changed her mind. She spoke directly to board members on Wednesday and managed to convince a majority of them to grant her a reprieve. Trustees voted that night in a marathon closed-door meeting to suspend her with pay for 30 days.

Gonzalez's about-face left Harden's agreement with her in tatters. So now Harden, much to his dismay, remains at the center of a vicious political battle that has once again marked Dallas as a race-baiting metropolis. The Washington Post has already assigned a reporter to delve into the story--ready again to tell the country about all that's wrong in the city of hate.

Once, not so long ago, Harden and Gonzalez considered themselves allies.
They started working together in April 1996, when Gonzalez, having hopscotched to three school systems during her career, left the top job in the Santa Fe, New Mexico, schools to serve in DISD as deputy superintendent under Chad Woolery.

In January, after Woolery surprised everyone with his decision to leave for a job in the private sector, DISD trustees tapped Gonzalez for superintendent.

The response to her appointment, however, made clear that she'd assume her position with a set of ready-made allies and enemies. Latinos wildly applauded the appointment of DISD's first Hispanic superintendent. But the district's three black trustees, while not opposing Gonzalez personally, complained loudly that the board had not done its due diligence before ramming her down their throats.

Militant black activists picked up the trustees' protest and turned it into a flat-out racial battle.

Unlike Gonzalez, Harden had never worked anywhere but DISD since college. As a freshly minted graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Harden began working for the district in 1972 as an accountant. He moved up steadily through the ranks, acquiring more responsibilities with each new superintendent's arrival.

In his complaint, Harden admits that he and Gonzalez became close. He says in his suit that he "quickly became a staunch Gonzalez supporter and was excited about what he perceived as efforts to solidify the polarized factions that had been pulling DISD apart." The feelings were mutual, he claims in his suit. "Not only did Gonzalez welcome his support, but she soon made him a central member of her inner circle," Harden's complaint states. "She arranged for them to begin working closely together, often alone, and often after hours. The two developed a close professional and personal relationship."

Just how far that personal relationship progressed, Harden refuses to say publicly.

The two administrators did have some common ground. Neither grew up in a wealthy family, yet both had succeeded in obtaining a higher education against the odds.

Gonzalez had grown up in Laredo. In an interview this spring, Gonzalez, who has not returned phone calls from the Observer since it published stories questioning the costs of her office renovations,

referred to herself in jest as "a little Mexican girl." She said she'd escaped her economically depressed border town through education. The only one of four daughters to finish college, Gonzalez eventually earned a doctoral degree in education from Texas A&M.

Harden, too, was the only one of his parents' eight children to earn a bachelor's degree. Born and raised in Tyler, Harden grew up poor. He recalls starting his primary grades not in September with the other children, but in January when his family trekked home from West Texas--where the whole clan picked cotton to supplement their incomes for the rest of the year. When Harden's third-grade teacher insisted that he start school on time, his mother, who also worked, finally put a stop to the family's work as migrant laborers.

Coming up in Tyler in the late '50s and early '60s, Harden remembers segregation as a fact of life. He recalls vividly the first time he took a long-distance school field trip, traveling by bus to Washington, D.C. Although Harden and his fellow students would see the usual sights--grandiose monuments, museums, and the nation's capitol--it was the sight of an interracial couple strolling together that sent Harden and his classmates climbing over themselves to peer out the bus window. "We couldn't believe it," he recalls.

About his own interracial relationship with Gonzalez, Harden offers only the information contained in his complaint. He stresses, however, that by January 1997, when Gonzalez was appointed as superintendent, he had told her that he didn't want their personal relationship to continue. "I made it clear she needed to stop the advances," Harden says.

But--according to Harden's lawsuit--the superintendent wouldn't back off. As recently as last month, Harden alleges, Gonzalez told him that "she loved him" and that "she was jealous of other women around him and that, although she was married, she wanted to marry him."

As a divorced father of two, Harden could have entered into an intimate relationship with Gonzalez if he'd so desired.

But as the married superintendent of one of the nation's largest school districts, Gonzalez clearly would have been on treacherous ground if she'd courted such a link with Harden. According to her contract with the DISD board, she must not violate the community's moral code--although that "code" isn't spelled out. Questions of adultery aside, she would also risk raising troubling issues about the propriety of a boss dating a subordinate at the same time she was conducting a far-ranging investigation into corruption among district employees.

The consensual aspect of Harden's relationship with Gonzalez will undoubtedly muddy the waters if a court ever considers his allegations that Gonzalez sexually harassed him. Given the evidence that Gonzalez tracked his personal car and eventually tried to fire him, Harden's lawyers could argue that while the two once shared a romantic relationship of some sort, she retaliated against him once he rejected her advances.

It was already dusk on a hot mid-August evening when Matthew Harden, Jr. stopped at the Blockbuster video store in DeSoto on his way home from work. The night before, he'd watched Turbulence, an action thriller starring Ray Liotta.

"It was about a group of unsavory characters who take over an airplane," Harden recalled as he sat in his lawyer's office--wondering if perhaps the same thing wasn't happening at DISD. Harden seemed a little surprised that he could still remember the plot, given all that's transpired in the month since he popped the movie into his VCR. Then again, his own life resembles a cheesy thriller these days.

Or perhaps he recalls it so clearly because it was on that same evening at the Blockbuster store that Harden uncovered a piece of disturbing evidence that would ultimately convince him to wage an open, high-stakes battle against the DISD superintendent.

At the store, Harden dropped his copy of Turbulence into the return slot and walked back to his 10-year-old black Mercedes. Harden recalls that, as he approached the car from the rear, he spotted a mysterious small box, as well as some wiring, under the car's frame. The box, no bigger than a videocassette, resembled the tracking devices DISD security staff used to monitor the district's fleet of maintenance vehicles.

Wondering who'd stuck it on his car, Harden showed the device to DeSoto police the next morning, then drove to work. When he got to his office at DISD headquarters, he also told then-DISD safety and security director C.W. Burruss about his discovery. Harden says he asked Burruss to stake out his car, just in case the individual who installed the device returned to check it.

That afternoon, Harden heard back from DeSoto police, who weren't sure how to proceed. So he telephoned a Dallas police investigator he knew, who instructed him to remove the tracker immediately and take it to police so they could investigate its origins. Harden took it to the station that very night.

Two days after he'd found the tracker, Harden decided to tell his boss about his troubling discovery. He asked Gonzalez's assistant for an appointment several times that morning, but couldn't get in. He finally finagled a meeting when he informed the assistant that a Dallas police investigator was in his office.

Minutes later, the superintendent's assistant called and told Harden to come by.

When he got there, Gonzalez had Bill Webster, the head of testing and evaluation services, in her office. Harden hesitated. He didn't want to start talking about the tracker in front of someone else. But Gonzalez encouraged him to go ahead and tell her whatever he'd come to say.

So he told her about the tracker. He remembers being caught off guard by her reaction.

"She said, 'Well, I told you some time ago that some strange things were going on here in this district,'" Harden recalls. "I was surprised, because I thought if a subordinate walks in [and tells you about a tracker], it would [immediately] pique your interest. The first thing you'd want to do is run out to see if there was one on your car."

Instead, Gonzalez asked Harden if he'd turned over the device to the security department at DISD. Harden replied that he'd passed it on to Dallas police. He recalls Gonzalez making a concerned expression that caught his attention.

"She had a strange look on her face," he says. "That was when I really began to suspect she had something to do with it."

As the entire city now knows, he was right.

Harden says he didn't hear from Gonzalez again the day he told her about the tracking device. "I received no communication back whatsoever," he recalls.

He was understandably shocked that evening when he turned on his television at home and saw Gonzalez and Hinkle telling reporters about new security concerns at DISD. Robert Hinkle, Gonzalez's publicity chief and right-hand man, appeared on camera talking about the five tracking devices he'd supposedly found on administrators' cars--as well as possible bugs in the superintendent's office.

"I'm thinking," Harden recalls, "What in the hell is this? No one has come in to me, and I was the one who reported it. It was obvious to me it was a cover-up."

Harden's hunch has been supported by the evidence his lawyers have gathered since then. The strongest corroboration to date is testimony from Larry Steiging, the private investigator whom Gonzalez hired to conduct regular sweeps of the superintendent's office for bugs.

Steiging, doing a 180-degree turn from the account he'd previously offered reporters, told Harden's lawyer in sworn testimony that Gonzalez's office had indeed asked him to put a tracker on Harden's car as well as assign personnel to monitor his whereabouts. Steiging testified that he'd kept the tracker on the car for about four days in mid-August, hoping to determine whether Harden was leaking information to the news media and, if so, just who was receiving that information.

Steiging stated that he was following the instructions he'd been given by Gonzalez's office. He did not say--as Gonzalez's attorney has claimed--that he was tracking Harden for the purposes of uncovering corruption.

At the request of Harden's lawyer, Steiging turned over his notes from an August 10 conversation he'd had with Gonzalez's assistant when he first got the assignment. The private investigator wrote down the names of the people Gonzalez wanted to know if Harden was meeting.

Steiging testified that Gonzalez wanted to know specifically whether Harden had met with an Observer reporter, board president Bill Keever, and newly elected trustee John Dodd, who had made some troubling inquiries into her proposed expansion of the administrative staff as well as the costs of her office renovations.

Steiging said he arranged to have the tracking stopped immediately when he learned from Gonzalez's office that the device had been discovered. He also complied, he testified, with a disturbing request from the superintendent's office. He agreed to back-date the $2,800 in invoices he'd planned to charge the district for the tracking work. Steiging testified that Gonzalez's assistant had asked him to do that so it wouldn't be obvious what the payments were for.

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.

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.

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