By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A swirl of recent stories seems to paint a panoramic picture of wrongdoing at City Hall. But the lawyers working this vineyard say the stories will have to be teased apart and bright lines drawn before anybody can be indicted. If a bunch of guys are talking to each other about buying a city council member's vote, and if they trade large amounts of money over it, and if some of them talk to the city council member about it, and if the city council member delays the agenda item they're interested in, there still may not be an indictable case against the council member unless you can show money going into the council member's pocket.
People are speculating about whether the FBI is leaking stories to CBS 11 Television in order to bolster its position and stave off criticism that it has mounted a racist probe. I tend to think Channel 11 just has some good reporters working for it, and I wish the FBI were leaking stuff to me. But some of what the FBI has done publicly, such as meeting with black community leaders to explain its methods, does seem unusually political.
There is a difference of opinion about the role of politics in the probe. Mike Snipes, who left the U.S. Attorney's Office a year ago for private practice and is representing a peripheral figure in the City Hall probe, told me he doesn't believe political pressure will have anything to do with the ultimate decisions on indictments. In particular, he said the U.S. Attorney won't seek indictments in order to provide the FBI with cover for a weak investigation.
"You got guys over there who are professionals, Mark McBride and Bob Webster, who've been federal prosecutors for 100 years and damn good ones, and they're not going to move on it unless they think they've got it. And I think they're still assessing things."
But another source familiar with federal law enforcement who spoke to me not for attribution was a bit more qualified. He said the degree to which political and career pressure may impinge on indictment decisions depends entirely on the FBI agents and the assistant U.S. attorneys involved. Some back-scratching and face-saving is possible. A safe bottom line, however, is that the U.S. Attorney will not go to battle with a case he knows he's going to lose.
An example everyone brings up sooner or later is the FBI probe of the Dallas public school system in 1998. The FBI dug and dug to make a case on a whole tier of top DISD administrators. The heat was on the FBI then, as it is now, to come up with a pattern of high-level corruption. But the FBI didn't get there. The only big fish the U.S. Attorney netted was superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, who was actually delivered to them on a platter by this newspaper ("Yvonne's School of Accounting," by Miriam Rozen, Dallas Observer, August 7, 1997).
Come to think of it, didn't we also give them Al Lipscomb on a paper plate ("Clueless," by Laura Miller, May 30, 1996)? Shouldn't they give us a plaque or something?
The point is that the feds are only human. They can dig and churn and send up smoke for months--for the next five years in fact--and decide on the last day before the statute of limitations lapses that they didn't make it.
Or they could slam somebody tomorrow. Another myth going around City Hall these days is that the feds can't have much yet on any council members because none of them has received a "target letter" warning that he or she is the focus of a federal investigation. I ran that one by a source who has taken part in many federal investigations. He said the government is under no obligation to give anybody a target letter, whether that person is a target or not.
"For example, Jim, we typically do not send a target letter to a drug dealer informing him that he will be raided soon."
Mayor Miller is a change agent. During her tenure so far, she has thrown mud in the eyes of everybody on the plantation--the givers and the takers. She could be rewarded with a fresh mandate. Or she could be rewarded with a boot in the butt. The election isn't until 2007. But the city's future probably is being decided before our eyes right now.