Paper Trails

Morning News waits and waits to acknowledge CBS-11's scoop of an ethically challenged state rep

But Bensman remembered the Observer's own Jim Schutze's scoop on Hodge and her peculiar habit of picking up absentee ballots from elderly voters, sneaking around the provisions of state election law by having a third party actually deliver them. So Hodge isn't exactly a stranger to ethical imbroglios. With that in mind, Bensman conducted a public database search on the state representative and the most innocuous item it pulled up, her address, is what started it all. Turns out Hodge was residing at the Rosemont at Arlington Park, one of Potashnik's properties. Bensman called the state housing board and found out that Hodge had lent her support to several of Potashnik's developments. Some of them were opposed by her constituents; others were outside her district.

In August, with Bensman as the producer, Robert Riggs reported that Hodge was living at the Rosemont, a Potashnik property. Then with the camera rolling, the two visited her at her office and asked the typically loquacious lawmaker if she was paying rent. In a moment that only television could have done justice, Hodge said absolutely nothing for 21 seconds, making a deer caught in the headlights seem astute by comparison. But nobody had proof of anything until Channel 11 finagled internal company records after tracking down three former employees of Potashnik's Southwest Housing. Those documents showed that Hodge's $699 overdue balance on her $899 monthly rent was "to be paid by the corporation."

The Morning News likely has not seen those documents for themselves, and Bensman is likely chortling with delight. He worked at the News from 1993-2003, penning dozens of critical stories on former police Chief Terrell Bolton, the city's first black top cop. Black leaders such as John Wiley Price were up in arms, protesting outside the newspaper's building. Bensman would later tell the Columbia Journalism Review that the paper succumbed to pressure from the black community and that his city editor told him, "'You are never to write about Terrell Bolton again.'" Two years later, Bensman left the newspaper to work as an investigative producer at CBS-11.

Channel 11's scoopsters Todd Bensman and Robert Riggs
Mark Graham
Channel 11's scoopsters Todd Bensman and Robert Riggs

The station boasts several other top scoops, one of which the Morning News obliquely referred to without crediting the source. On June 27, Bensman and Riggs reported that D'Angelo Lee, a friend of Don Hill who was then serving on the influential Dallas Plan Commission, approved a zoning permit for an affordable housing project that helped earn him a $5,000 consulting fee. The story was impeccably reported. The president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Dallas confirmed that it paid Lee $5,000 for assisting the group's bid to become the social service provider for yet another Potashnik property, this one now under construction in Oak Cliff. A month later, the Morning News published an authoritative 4,400-word account of how the rivalry between developers Brian Potashnik and Bill Fisher spun off an FBI investigation into how tax credits and zoning changes were approved by city officials. The story remains the definitive account of the investigation, but there's one mystifying sentence that loops around Channel 11's scoop: "And then there was a story surrounding Mr. Lee and the Urban League of Greater Dallas, a predominantly black civil rights group." Well, there was a story about that, and it appeared a month earlier at a competing television station. Interestingly, the News' account of Lee's dealings was far less thorough. The paper reported that Lee stood to receive a fee for his consulting work, but unlike CBS-11's prior story, it did not report how much the fee was and whether he received it.

Bensman and Riggs also had another eye-popping story when they reported that professional acquaintances of Don Hill are heard on FBI audiotapes negotiating a $250,000 payoff to the Dallas mayor pro tem to clear his political obstruction of one of Bill Fisher's south Dallas projects. CBS-11 interviewed two sources who were familiar with the tapes and said they reveal Hill's friends recounting conversations they've had with Hill about how much money he wants. The station reported that a source told them the acquaintance, attorney John Lewis, took a $50,000 check from Fisher, who is believed to be working for the FBI. At the council meeting that day, Hill delayed voting on a zoning ordinance for Fisher, then wound up voting for it shortly after Lewis popped into the council meeting.

The Morning News has yet to touch that story as well, although a newsroom source says that the paper's reporters are trying to talk to people who are familiar with the FBI tapes. Until then, stick with Channel 11. --Matt Pulle

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