Paper Trails

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

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.

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

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 D magazine'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 News had 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.

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.

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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