Target practice

The feds got a conviction against a DISD contractor, but they may have been gunning for Matthew Harden

A federal jury deliberated for only three hours before convicting William Risby, a roofing contractor, last Friday on 64 DISD-related counts that included charges of kickbacks, embezzlement, and conspiracy to defraud the school district of more than $385,000 for roofing repairs that were never performed. But as the proceedings unfolded the prior week in U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders' courtroom, it often seemed as if Risby wasn't the only defendant on trial.

"In some people's eyes, it was the Matthew Harden trial," says Harden, the former chief financial officer at DISD.

At the trial, assistant U.S. Attorney Madeleine Johnson, the prosecutor on the case, had her star witness--James Hargrave, a former school district roofing inspector who had pleaded guilty to embezzlement and agreed to cooperate with the government in exchange for leniency--testify that Risby had informed him he was paying kickbacks to Harden.

"Risby told me we need to get more money to people at DISD," Hargrave told the jury last Wednesday, according to an account in The Dallas Morning News. "He told me two or three times he needed $20,000. That Harden needed it for the house he's building. He needed money ASAP."

For Harden, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing at DISD and any involvement in kickback schemes, the troubling testimony follows months of stories and speculation about his alleged crimes at the district.

A 19-year DISD veteran who had quietly risen to the role of chief financial officer, Harden first exposed himself to public recrimination on September 12, 1997, after he filed a lawsuit in state district court against then-Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez. Harden alleged that Gonzalez had slandered him, tried to force him to resign, and invaded his privacy by having a tracking device planted on his car. He also revealed in the suit that he and Gonzalez had a personal relationship that went far beyond their professional one, and claimed that he had become the target of her jealousy and vindictiveness. In the tumultuous months that followed, Gonzalez resigned as superintendent, pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges--having pilfered DISD funds to pay for bedroom furniture--and began serving her sentence in federal prison. Harden, in turn, sued the school board for conspiring to deprive him of his livelihood and discriminating against him because of his race.

Six months ago, Harden settled his differences with the board by agreeing to quit the district in exchange for a $600,000 lump-sum payment.

Since then, however, when U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins and his assistants have publicly commented about their continuing DISD investigation, they have consistently insinuated that Harden is linked to wrongdoing at DISD--though never going so far as to actually name him as a target.

The Dallas Observer reported in March that an unnamed assistant U.S. attorney (who was, in fact, Madeleine Johnson) responded to a query at a social gathering about whether Harden was a crook or just incompetent, by saying: "Oh, we think he is a lot more than just incompetent. But whether it can ever be proven is another thing."

In April, when U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins announced that Hargrave had pleaded guilty, the prosecutor told reporters, "This investigation has been on a fast track from day one, and it just got on a supersonic track. Obviously, high-ranking DISD officials were part of the embezzlement scheme. It didn't begin and end with James Hargrave."

There was little doubt that Coggins was talking about Harden.
However, it wasn't until the Risby trial that Johnson sent a clear message to Harden that she was gunning for him. In her opening statements to the jury, the prosecutor mentioned that Risby had relationships with top DISD officials, including Harden, before the roofing contractor started winning lucrative contracts from the district.

Harden concedes that he played against Risby in some pickup basketball games eight years ago, but says he never displayed bias in his favor and notes that the contractor, like most others at DISD, was subjected to an extensive bidding process.

Harden denies that he received any kickbacks from Risby and considers Hargrove's testimony that Risby claimed that Harden needed $20,000 to pay for his new house sheer fabrication--a way to connect him with prior press reports that indicated he had suspiciously paid $20,000 in cash to his homebuilder. Harden concedes that in October 1994 he received from a relative $10,000 in cash, which he paid to the builder. But he claims the other $10,000 came in the form of a cashier's check that he withdrew from his credit-union account. Harden provided the Observer with copies of the cashier's check as well as copies of the statements from the credit-union account. The statements show that Harden had the money available in his account at least a month before he wrote a $9,900 check to his homebuilder.

Harden's lawyer, Ron Wells, agrees with his client's assessment that the government has targeted the former district CFO unfairly. He fully expects the Johnson to indict his client, Wells says, "because of the way her attitude has been, and not because I think he deserves it."

Wells condemns the prosecutor's tactics, calling her approach a "clear fishing expedition...It's out of control. I have never seen anything like it. They do not have anything, and they have pursued this guy for months."

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