By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
On November 3, CBS-11 broke what is arguably the most important story about the FBI investigation into alleged corruption in local government since federal agents swarmed Dallas City Hall. State Representative Terri Hodge had been receiving $700 a month in rent subsidies for nearly four years from developer Brian Potashnik, who just happened to garner her support for several of his polarizing housing projects. Her attorney Mike Snipes did not dispute the station's reporting, explaining rather that his client thought she qualified for the sweetheart lease. With Channel 11's scoop not in doubt, the beaten Dallas Morning News had three options:
A) Follow the story immediately, citing CBS-11 or less generously, "a Dallas television station," and inform the paper's readers that a four-term state representative had been receiving financial help from a developer who's at the center of an FBI bribery investigation.
B) Invite several of the paper's top-shelf investigative reporters to pen their own story on Hodge, detail how and why she lent her support to Potashnik and quickly wrestle the story away from Channel 11's understaffed newsroom.
C) Choose to live in this sheltered, antiquated world where daily newspapers can choose to ignore major stories for 12 days running--because they can't source it themselves and don't want to suffer the ignominy of citing another news outlet's reporting.
If you haven't already guessed, the Morning News went with option C, inexplicably failing to inform its readers for nearly two weeks that an elected official is taking what looks suspiciously like a bribe--or to be more specific, a total of $32,000 in rent and utility benefits over four years. At press time, the city's only daily newspaper, along with its Belo Corp. brother WFAA-Channel 8, had not written or spoken a word about the story, as if it were an anguished Thanksgiving family blowout that everyone is thinking about but no one will speak of the next year at the dinner table.
Managing Editor George Rodrigue declined to talk about why his paper has failed to pick up on the Hodge sweetheart lease, a decision that has been the topic of a running joke on Dmagazine's FrontBurner blog. But he did e-mail a statement about the paper's reporting on the FBI investigation: "This has been a very competitive story. We have led on many aspects of it, and followed on others. We have sometimes had to balance the value of immediately responding to incremental news breaks against the value of allowing our investigative team to remain focused on deeper, longer-term stories. Several of our best reporters are assigned to this story. We are determined to stay on top of it, and to remain the deepest, fairest and most accurate source of news about local government."
But not the most urgent.
In fact, the Morning News' coverage of the FBI investigation has been indispensable, adding flesh to the bones of the cast of characters who have been targeted. But its inability to break the Hodge story, or just promptly follow up on it, overshadows the hard-hitting reporting it has done to date. This is not an incremental news story. It's a damning revelation about a four-term state lawmaker.
A newsroom source tells the Dallas Observer that the paper's reporters begrudgingly acknowledge that Channel 11 beat them to the story and are now working to source it themselves. But last Thursday, one week after the station broke the story on Hodge, we called Snipes and asked him if anyone from the Morning Newshad reached out and touched him. The answer was no.
Snipes would be a good person to call in large part because--we're going to repeat this--He's. Not. Disputing. The. Facts. Of. The. Story. And his defense of Hodge is in itself newsworthy. The former federal prosecutor says that his client is "single, elderly and impoverished" and simply thought that she qualified for a favorable lease from Potashnik.
"She thought it was OK," he said. "I think a lot of people would think it was OK if they were making $7,200 a year," which is her salary as a state lawmaker.
And as far as why Hodge filed formal letters of support for Potashnik's developments and spoke in favor of his projects at housing board hearings? Snipes says that she simply believed in them. When I tell him this is a bit hard to believe, Snipes asks me if I graduated college.
"Yes," I tell him.
"Well, she graduated from the sixth grade."
She also authored more than 20 bills in the 2005 legislative session, on subjects ranging from municipal taxes on food and drink to the administrative segregation of an inmate in the custody of the state.
Reporters at The Dallas Morning News think that CBS-11 investigative producer Todd Bensman has a source at the FBI who is leaking him hot information to the exclusion of everyone else. That may or may not be true for some of Bensman's other scoops--more on those later--but here he unearthed the cozy arrangement between Potashnik and Hodge on his own. In August, Hodge seemed like an afterthought in the ongoing FBI investigation into how local officials award tax credits to low-income housing developers. Unlike Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, whose office, home and the BMW that he drives (but doesn't own) was searched by federal agents, Hodge was merely mentioned in a subpoena that asked for her correspondence on zoning records. Boring.