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Anatomy of a smear

Mark Graham

Robin Page had been home from her job as an assistant Dallas city attorney for only a day when reporters began calling and showing up at her doorstep. That she would be their quarry, rather than the poorly run unit of the Dallas Police Department with which she had worked, was what astonished her. She wouldn't understand why they came to her door until many months later, long after the story's temperature had cooled.

On this day in mid-April, it was news on a boil. Channel 8 had parked in front of Page's tidy brick home in suburban Mesquite, with The Dallas Morning News minutes behind. Channel 4 had called earlier, the very night Page was suspended, and Channel 5 already had a story in the works -- minus Page's side of things. All had been briefed by the cops on Page's alleged misdeeds, and who wouldn't jump at what was being hinted at: a city attorney on the take?

"That day was the first time I cried over it," Page recalls of a three-month episode that would leave a big, ugly stain on her career. "When I opened my door and there was Valeri Williams and a camera in my face, I knew this was real."

On Friday, April 8, the 34-year-old lawyer had been summoned to then-Interim City Attorney Angela Washington's office and told she was being put on indefinite leave pending the outcome of an investigation by the police department's public integrity unit.

Page was flabbergasted, but Washington gave her no hint of what the allegations against her were. Page recalls that when she started to pose that question, she was told not to speak. Her orders were to turn in her Dallas Police Department Police Attorney badge, her magnetic key and the key to her office, and her pager. She would be on administrative leave until a corruption investigation and a city attorney's office review were completed. She was told it might be a good idea to hire a lawyer.

That weekend, Page says, a reporter for Channel 4 called and said he had been tipped to the story. "He said I was being accused of bribery involving hundreds of cases," remembers Page, who suddenly could see her law career, the stability of her young family, and her loyalty and pride in working for the city of Dallas going down the sewer. Over the next two weeks, a variety of reporters contacted Page and, in the course of getting her side, expanded on what they had heard. Page gathered that the investigation involved a suggestion that she had improper dealings with the Topletzes -- a wealthy family headed by two elderly brothers who own roughly 500 rent houses in inner-city Dallas. And that's what went on the air.

The reporters -- including Williams, who had been looking into residents' complaints of drug dealing, gun play, and murders at Topletz houses in Oak Cliff and South Dallas -- and the Morning News had been led by the police to believe the investigation was about the Topletzes.

But it was not.

Internal police department memos authorizing the probe show that former Executive Assistant Chief Willard Rollins launched the investigation on another matter -- involving a letter Page wrote in support of state tax abatements for another landlord. That accusation turned out to be just as thin and baseless as the Topletz allegations, which the detective on Page's case decided to check out later in his work because of all the fuss being made about them in the newspaper and on TV.

And why not start pulling stuff out of the newspapers? He had no other leads.

At the center of the charges, police documents show, there was...nothing. No sources. No incriminating checks or bank records or tape recordings or documents whatsoever. Not even an unidentified snitch. Police files made available to the Dallas Observer under Texas' open records act, as well as files obtained by Page and her ex-police officer husband, contain no trace of a probable cause, no possible starting point to suggest that Page was involved in criminality or that anything criminal had occurred in any of the cases on which she worked. The detective who worked on the case had so little to go on, so little to check out, that he was reduced to calling up one of the "implicated" apartment owners and asking, "Did you give Robin Page money?"

The apartment owner, Alex Stolarski, recalls laughing into the phone and asking why in the world Dallas was turning on this level-headed, dedicated public servant.

Why was a seven-year city employee with performance-review scores between "good" and "excellent" and an apparently satisfied supervisor subject to a three-month, leaked-to-the-press, cameras-in-the-face investigation that ended with a lingering hint that, well, given all the noise she must have done something?

 

The answers appear to be right out of an Ed McBain police novel, where cop careers rise and fall on one's ability to manipulate the headquarters hierarchy, and where one of the surest career enhancement techniques is this: When the skunks are loose, get someone else to handle the sack. Get a scapegoat.

Police files show that Rollins and other police officials were keenly aware and quite interested in the fact that reporters were checking into the city's poor record of using its police-led "nuisance abatement" unit against the Topletzes. The unit, known as the S.A.F.E. team, targets properties where drugs or prostitution are rampant and attempts to use fire and building codes as well as civil penalties to force owners to clean things up. But over the years, the unit couldn't make even the smallest tickets against the Topletzes stick.

One writer from the Morning News had been on the Topletz story for two months, one memo to Rollins states. Channel 8's Williams weighed in after the News but was digging into the story, having been alerted to the Topletz properties by a disgruntled neighbor, notes the memo, written by the abatement unit's supervisor, Lt. Tammy Ellzey.

"With all this attention, what better way to divert it than put the problems off on someone? Why not the city attorney who took these cases to court?" says David Miller, a civil attorney representing Page. "That way, not only were the police cleared of the problem, but they could look like they were doing something to resolve it."

If that was the plan, it worked pretty well.

A leadership void existed at the time in the city attorney's office, where Angela Washington was making an unsuccessful bid for the top job, so Page's department didn't step on the brakes. And once Page's neck was stretched out, the daily media began to focus on her rather than police and code-inspector screwups as the reasons for the dismissed tickets. The News, which ran the headline "Assistant City Attorney Investigated: Failure to Prosecute Housing Cases Alleged," even took credit for getting the inquiry going, writing in one story that it brought complaints about prosecution of serial code violators directly to then-police Chief Ben Click.

As the Page probe commenced in mid-April, Joe Munoz of Channel 5 reported the story just as the police scripted it. He said in a top-of-the-newscast report that the Topletz family owned a number of substandard rent houses and that "31 are known drug houses...Nine have been the sites of homicides. But the Dallas Police Department has not turned a blind eye to these run-down properties. In fact, since 1996, they have issued more than 260 citations. What happened? They all apparently have been dismissed. An investigation by the Dallas Police Department's public integrity unit is under way to try to find out why...The focus is on the city attorney who allegedly advised officers how to build their cases. Police say that attorney allegedly dismissed those cases."

The truth, already known to Page and a lot of others around the city courts, was far different. As it came out in the Page investigation, the dismissals were more about sloppy police work and code inspectors who didn't answer subpoenas to show up for court than about anything close to bribery or criminal conduct.

Page was more than "not guilty." She was innocent. And with her attorney readying a federal lawsuit against the city demanding "significant monetary damages" for defamation, invasion of privacy, and other transgressions for her trip through the mud, the truth could get expensive. In the end, Dallas taxpayers might be the ones left holding the S.A.F.E. team's bag.


Bookish and businesslike in her round glasses and conservative suits yet hardly as officious as that might suggest, Robin Page seems an unlikely target of a smear -- especially at the hands of Dallas police. Her mother, the late Dorris Berry, is considered a crime-fighting saint in certain sections of the department for her role in starting several neighborhood crime-watch groups in Oak Cliff. She brought the crime-fighting National Night Out to Dallas in the mid-1980s. In appreciation, she was awarded the department's highest civilian commendation, and last year a city park in West Oak Cliff was named after her -- an affair attended by local politicos and police brass.

"My mother was so excited I was going to work for the city," recalls Page, who graduated from Kimball High School, where she was lieutenant of the drill team, the Troubadears. Her family includes a judge, a justice of the peace, and a district attorney, so when she finished Texas Tech law school in 1991, her career thoughts ran to prosecution. At the time, in the midst of a recession, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office wasn't hiring, so she went after a job in the city attorney's office, where the entry level is prosecution of traffic tickets and code violations in municipal court.

 

During Page's first week on the job, the lawyer who was training her handed her a traffic ticket and told her to find the officer who wrote it. The patrol cop, Jim Page, told her he remembered the ticket, but he wanted to know something else. "He asked me, 'Are you married?' When I told him I wasn't, he said, 'Wanna get married?' I thought I might have scared him off when I told him maybe we needed to go on a date first." They made a lunch date at Spaghetti Warehouse and started going out, and when Robin told her they were engaged, her mother was delighted a Dallas cop was joining her family.

Page worked the city courts for less than a year before moving up to a job as legal advisor to the S.A.F.E. team in 1993. Her duties there included going out with the team on inspections -- to provide on-the-spot advice in the face of complaints by landlords' lawyers -- preparing cases for prosecution (other lawyers would be the lead prosecutor in court), and attempting to work some of the bigger bugs out of the highly bureaucratic system of nailing code violators. She pushed to designate a specialized court for repeat code violators -- the special ordinance court -- so the S.A.F.E. team's dozens of violations against a single defendant could be tried in batches. She also helped set up a standard set of complaints that would withstand legal challenges and designed a system to move S.A.F.E. team tickets through the courts.

Some of those refinements came as a result of the very able legal defenses put up by lawyers for landlords such as the Topletzes.

Page wrote three separate memos -- two in 1996 and one in 1997 -- to code inspectors or cops in the unit about the importance of researching a building's legal ownership before opening a case and writing tickets, then giving notice at the owner's correct address. The last memo, written in November 1997, came as a direct result of problems with about 23 tickets issued to the Topletzes that Page and another prosecutor say they had no choice but to dismiss.

"They didn't send out notices; they just wrote them tickets. So we couldn't prove they had notice of the violations," Page recalls. "The inspectors knew we were going to dismiss those cases eventually. They [the Topletzes and their attorney] kept getting them reset, and we tried to negotiate some kind of plea, but they don't plea out."

In the usual run of business, rank-and-file inspectors and police investigators were kept abreast of cases. "We got their advice on pleas. They knew what cases were getting dismissed and why," Page says. "There wasn't anything secret going on."

The S.A.F.E. team, which eventually grew to 30 people, brought together three different city departments -- code enforcement, the cops, and city attorneys -- and coordination among the three was frequently difficult, Page recalls.

Janet Dill Stewart, the special-ordinance-court prosecutor who worked closely with Page, remembers that the S.A.F.E. team had a high turnover rate, "and with everybody changing all the time, you were telling them these things over and over." Stewart, who prosecuted cases against major slumlords for three years before she moved to Oklahoma in 1998, wrote her own multi-page instructional memo to the S.A.F.E. team in August 1997.

All officers in the unit were required to sign a ledger stating they received Page's November 1997 memo, she says. But the cops never passed it on to the code inspectors -- the people actually writing the tickets. "I had to hand it out," says Page. Her step-by-step, three-page list of instructions later was incorporated into the training document for all new code inspectors.


From the time Page joined the city attorney's office, she had eyed the job of legal liaison -- advising police on the details of the law -- and she finally landed it late last year, after a two-month stint as Stewart's replacement in the special ordinance court. Page had just begun teaching classes to new recruits at the Dallas Police Academy when the S.A.F.E. team's blundered cases began haunting her.

Lt. Tammy Ellzey, who had taken over S.A.F.E. after Page had left, began demanding explanations for various dismissed tickets. Many concerned cases that had been investigated three or four years before but had only recently been disposed of in the courts because of court backlogs and defense attorneys' delaying tactics.

 

Page responded in several memos that the problems lay in the investigations -- the same issues of finding the correct property owner and giving proper notices.

There was even a meeting in early November last year after which Ellzey thanked Page for taking time to help design a system for helping S.A.F.E. team supervisors track their unit's cases through the courts.

That somehow wasn't enough. In early April, Page was suddenly called on the carpet, sent home on paid leave, and put under the cloud of a public integrity investigation. "I've never been so distraught, hurt, betrayed...just everything," says Page, who broke out with a case of acne from the stress.

Washington, the then-interim city attorney who had been named one of three finalists for the job, might have stopped the investigation in its tracks. "I'll be honest. I didn't have any suspicion of criminal activity. There was just some activity that was unusual," she says now after being contacted at her new job with a Dallas law firm.

Pressed on why she would open a criminal investigation when she had no criminal suspicions, Washington replied, "There was unusual activity." She declined to elaborate further and said that with the prospect of a lawsuit, "I have to be careful."

If there was any "unusual activity" at the heart of the Page probe, nobody passed it on to the people doing the investigation.

Police department documents show the investigation was launched by Rollins one week after he got the memo about the media being hot on the Topletz story. The S.A.F.E. team was one of Rollins' units -- at least until his well-publicized demotion in September. Former Chief Click, in one of his last official acts, demoted Rollins to the rank of captain and assigned him to the graveyard shift at the county jail, saying Rollins improperly left the scene of a minor traffic accident.

The Page probe was assigned to detective Bill Sanders, whose handwritten notes, as well as the department's data-entry form, summarize the case in these words: "It is alleged Ms. Page dismissed numerous code violation citations for Alex Stolarski and wrote a letter to the state supporting Stolarski, a known code violator." The form noted it was a "tampering with records" charge, but other police paperwork described it as theft, fraud, or money laundering -- more proof that nobody quite knew what this was about.

Page did indeed write a letter of support in 1998 for a company with which Stolarski was working. The limited partnership was seeking $4 million in tax credits to renovate the Oakwood Place Apartments, a run-down, crime-ridden complex in southeast Oak Cliff.

Page backed the project, but so did state Reps. Helen Giddings and Domingo Garcia. There's even a letter in the Oakwood Place application file at the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs from Mayor Ron Kirk attesting to the need for decent low-cost housing in that neighborhood. They supported it because it was a good project, proposed by a company with a track record for turning around bad apartments.

It took Sanders only one interview to get to the bottom of the Stolarski letter, his notes show. He interviewed Senior Cpl. Emory Nash of the S.A.F.E. team, the detective in charge of dealing with Oakwood Place. Nash said that not only was he aware of Page's letter but he fully agreed with her writing it, adding that part of the unit's job was helping landlords get their properties "up to code."

According to Sanders' notes, the case against Page was being made at the S.A.F.E. team by Sgt. Tracy Hearn, who seemingly was either ignorant of or hiding the fact that Nash, the S.A.F.E. team member most knowledgeable about the Oakwood Place letter, saw nothing wrong with it.

Hearn, who had been the S.A.F.E. team's media contact on the Page and Topletz matters, has apparently dropped those duties since Page's attorney named her as a possible defendant in her yet-to-be-filed lawsuit. Hearn declined to comment for this story. "She was someone who for some reason disliked me from the day we met," Page says. "There was another lawyer in the office, and Sgt. Hearn would bake him cakes. From scratch. She didn't like me, and I don't know why."

Legally, the tax credit letter actually had little to do with Stolarski, who at the time was not an owner of the Oakwood Place apartments. It was owned by a limited partnership that had hired Stolarski to manage the property, as well as another complex, the Las Lomas apartments, that the company had renovated in the same neighborhood. Stolarski says he has since become part of the ownership group.

 

Nash and Page had toured the Las Lomas complex, checked crime statistics, and concluded that the partnership had turned things around. "As the S.A.F.E. team operates, you open and work cases against properties, not the people," Page says. "But that's not what happened here. Somebody on the S.A.F.E team had a problem with Stolarski. One sergeant up there saw him as the devil incarnate. They saw his name, and they said, 'We have to be against this.'"

The second part of the accusation against Page evaporated after Sanders pulled the court records and checked out the fate of code violation tickets issued to Stolarski, who says he owned or managed about seven "very low-income" properties over the years. "I don't know who I fought more, the drug dealers or the S.A.F.E. team or the owners," Stolarski says. "I quit that business. It was too much trouble, and I can tell you there isn't a lot of money in it. Nobody was getting rich."

There were 27 citations -- including traffic tickets -- issued to Stolarski between 1994 and 1999, the detective found. Ten were dismissed because they were written to the wrong defendant, records show, and 10 more were dismissed on the recommendation of code inspectors. Of the rest, two were guilty pleas and two resulted in probation. Once again, the evidence hints more at poor investigative work -- writing tickets to the wrong owners -- than at a problem with Page.

Sanders also talked with two lawyers, Assistant City Attorney Jackie Middlebrooks, who had been Page's supervisor at the time of her leave, and Stewart, who knew more about major code violators than anyone. Both told Sanders that in their experience, the S.A.F.E. team did not always provide Page with needed information to properly prosecute the citations. Stewart was particularly critical of one of the administrative sergeants on the S.A.F.E. team, saying he was difficult to work with.

So much for the case. That was all Sanders would learn about the Stolarski business, his notes and final report show. But the S.A.F.E. team was cooking up more trouble for Page.


If there was any question that Hearn and perhaps others in her unit were spinning the facts to implicate Page in wrongdoing, the Gregory Moore episode lays most doubts to rest. Sanders' investigative log shows that on his second day on the case, Hearn told him that Moore, an Old East Dallas apartment owner, had called the S.A.F.E. offices and "related he had received a phone call from Robin regarding his citations. Mr. Moore said Robin told him she needed to meet with him 'off the record.'"

"No, no, no. That's not the way it happened at all," said Moore recently as he dug through his extensive files on the matter at his Oak Lawn townhouse.

Moore had called Page -- and just about anyone else in the police and city attorney's office hierarchy who would listen to him -- but his purpose had nothing to do with secret meetings or suggestions of payola. He wanted to talk about various transgressions by the S.A.F.E. team, including procedures and notices that to him smacked of Gestapo tactics.

Producing signed statements from tenants, Moore says the S.A.F.E. team showed up at his eight-unit apartment at 613 N. Henderson St. and demanded that they be allowed in "or we will smash down your door." No search warrants had been issued or produced, and, anyway, this was a code violation visit, not a drug raid. The city later informed Moore by letter that it was relying on a lone drug arrest -- which turned out to be for a small amount of marijuana -- when it decided that Moore's apartment building was a public nuisance in need of intensive, in-your-face policing and door-to-door searches for bad floors and leaking pipes.

Beyond that, the S.A.F.E. team's written notice to Moore -- dated in August 1998 -- speaks volumes about the sloppiness of its investigative work into property ownership, the very thing Page and her city attorney colleagues had been complaining about. In opening its investigation on August 21, the S.A.F.E. team left a letter addressed to "Manager, 613 North Haskell...Dear Sir/Maam..." It said the building on Henderson Street was being targeted because "of allegations being made about illicit activity and/or hazardous code violations occurring on the premises you own at 1825 Park Avenue, commonly known as the Up Town Motel #2."

Moore was flummoxed. "I don't own the Up Town Motel #2. I have no connection to it. I've never been there." He says he tried to make these things clear to anyone in the city bureaucracy who would return his calls -- and few would.

 

It should have been very easy for the police to figure out who owned the apartment complex at 613 N. Haskell. Unlike slicker property owners who attempt to hide behind dummy corporations or post office box addresses, Moore is listed in online Dallas County Appraisal District records as the owner of the property, with a sale date and file number as a roadmap to the more definitive deed.

All Page says she did in the "secret meeting" conversation was suggest a possible meeting with Moore and the S.A.F.E. team code inspectors to work out a plea bargain -- just like she would with every other defendant. Moore's notes of the conversation also indicate she referred him to the S.A.F.E. team's supervisor or the cops' Internal Affairs division if he had complaints about police misconduct. Those answers, too, were completely by the book.

And somebody needed to follow the rules. The S.A.F.E. team certainly was not.

Records show that some of the S.A.F.E. team's procedural missteps resulted in the unit's going back and starting with Moore from square one. The officer in charge of the case, Senior Cpl. Luke Lawrence, was disciplined in December 1998 for failing to follow established procedures, records show. The S.A.F.E. team reinspected the complex in January, and Moore passed on all counts.

Page's successor in the special ordinance court, Assistant City Attorney Pavala Hall, was eventually asked by the S.A.F.E. team to dismiss at least 53 tickets issued to Moore, court records show. Page says she recently glanced at some of the paperwork requesting the dismissals in the city prosecutors' offices and offered Hall some wry advice: "I'd make copies and hang on to those if I were you."


Detective Sanders' report suggests that under the right circumstances, there is truth in the fairy-tale principle that if you say something often enough, it might become true. Like everyone else, Sanders heard the media quoting well-placed, high-ranking, unnamed police officials describing his investigation as centering on an alleged relationship between Page and the Topletz family. He already had the Stolarski matter nailed, so he decided to give the Topletz noise a look.

On April 26, his investigative notes show, he began gathering court files on Topletz cases.

Between August 1994 and August 1998, 122 citations written to the Topletz clan had been decided in the courts. All but five ended in dismissals. Of the discarded cases, 31 were dismissed for insufficient evidence, 30 were thrown out because the witnesses didn't show up in court, and 29 were tossed out because of defective complaints.

The court records in Sanders' case file don't specify whether the 122 tickets were written by the S.A.F.E. team or by city inspectors issuing tickets in their normal rounds. If they weren't S.A.F.E. team cases, any number of prosecutors could have been responsible for their handling, not just Page. Still, the numbers indicate there were far more problems with the investigative side, involving the work of police or inspectors, than with anything else.

Page and her lawyer had gone to the public integrity unit's offices, housed in a glass high-rise two blocks east of police headquarters, and submitted to a 30-minute interview by Sanders.

Sanders' questions, copies of which are in his file, proved that the investigation contained no real allegations of wrongdoing. "I was so relieved," Page says of the interview. "I went home and drank margaritas with my husband. I felt [Sanders] knew someone was just trying to, you know, c.y.a. [cover your ass], and that these were bad cases. My whole legal career, I had been asking the questions. It was hard being on the other side."

A lot of things were hard on Page and her husband -- like thinking about their plans and future if Robin lost her job. There was a defense lawyer to pay now, at $400 an hour. The Pages, who have children ages 2 and 5, had been relying solely on Robin's income. Jim had quit the police department after nine years in patrol and community policing to pursue a political science degree at Texas A&M at Commerce and go on from there to law school. But this was threatening to blow up everything.

And she was getting no support from her colleagues. "I got zero support from the city attorney's office. I got one call from an attorney who was hired just before I left," Page recalls. Apparently that rookie hadn't been around long enough to learn the rules of the office jungle: Steer clear of the carrion, or you might catch their disease.

Jim Page says it was difficult and embarrassing having to explain things to their families. "I was sick over it," he says. "At the department, I'd seen this happen so many times. It's why so many officers are reinstated after they're fired. When the story is weak, they oversell it to the media, so everyone thinks it must be true...I can't believe they did it to Robin after all her family has done for the city."

 

Page at first expected the investigation to wrap itself up in a matter of weeks. "The pressure was off after my interviews. Then I didn't hear anything. I started worrying again and started getting sick again, thinking, 'What are they coming up with now?'" The detective's investigative notes indicate he was trying from early May until mid-June to obtain the Pages' checking-account records from their bank.

Reading like a spreadsheet of any middle-class household, the records show the Pages living paycheck-to-paycheck, running through Robin's roughly $3,000-a-month after-tax salary with mortgage payments and debit-card purchases at places like Target, the Mesquite Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Walgreen's. "Yep, that's us," says Jim Page. "It hurt to know these people were knee-deep in our finances, trying to wipe Robin out."

Unknown until it was revealed later in an open records request, the police department's money laundering unit had actually begun investigating Page as early as February, two months before the official public integrity investigation was launched.

A notice addressed to "All Area Banks" alerted them to a "legitimate law enforcement inquiry" focusing on Page and her husband. The investigation's contact, the letter said, was detective Crista Walker with DPD's money laundering unit. Dated February 18, it requested all area financial institutions to provide "information regarding savings accounts, checking accounts, safety deposit boxes, CDs, IRAs" or any other deposits or accounts owned by the Pages.

Walker, contacted at the money laundering unit earlier this month, said, "I don't know anything about that [the Page] investigation." When informed that her name appears on the February 18 document, as well as on a raft of other documents related to police acquisition of the Pages' financial records through court-issued subpoenas, Walker replied, "No comment" and refused to answer further questions.

Walker's bank alert shows the cops -- acting outside established rules for investigation of city employees -- were trying to rifle through the bank accounts of a city lawyer, on their own authority, as early as mid-February. "When I saw that," says Page. "I nearly threw up on my desk."


Page's new boss, City Attorney Madeleine Johnson, learned in a short letter in late June that the investigation of Robin Page had concluded. "There were no criminal violations discovered and the investigation has now been closed," the cops informed her. She called in Page for a meeting.

"I go into that meeting thinking, it's over and she's gonna say, 'So sorry you had to go through this,'" Page recalls.

Instead, Johnson informed her that an administrative investigation was about to commence and told her she was giving her the "opportunity to resign." Page says she replied, "absolutely not," and asked Johnson what she was being accused of now. "She told me I'd know what the investigation was over."

Two weeks later, that investigation was complete. Without allowing Page to address the specifics, Johnson presented her a letter with a list of dates on which she either arrived to the S.A.F.E. team offices an hour or so late or left early. Page would be reassigned to prosecution -- the entry-level job she had left in 1993.

"I got the feeling that now that I was marked, somebody was going to find something wrong with me," says Page. One way or another she was going to be blamed for the S.A.F.E. team's screwups. "I got that impression. But I wasn't in charge of anyone at S.A.F.E. I tried to tell them what to do, but they preferred to operate their way."

The worst thing was that once Page was allowed back into her office to obtain her personal calendar and one from the special ordinance court, she could readily explain why she wasn't in the S.A.F.E. team offices. She was working in court, or meeting with other prosecutors preparing cases, on the vast majority of those days, the calendar records show.

Page says the S.A.F.E. team time log -- which itself is highly unusual because the police were not responsible for keeping her time -- was accepted as gospel by Johnson. Never mind that the source was the same unit that had just tried to send her to prison with fictitious allegations of felony crimes. In the last city attorney's office performance evaluation Page had seen, in October 1998, her attendance and work dedication were evaluated as "good," and her overall evaluation between "good" and "excellent."

 

Page hired David Miller as her lawyer and asked Johnson to examine her attendance evidence. Grudgingly, Johnson gathered up the calendars -- and hasn't gotten back to her in about three months, Page says. "All I wanted was my legal liaison job back," she says. "Instead, they put me back in an entry-level job. Anyone knows once you have gotten out of prosecution and are put back in, your career with the city attorney's office is over. This tastes like, smells like, feels like punishment to me."

Around the city attorney's office, she says, she remains under some sort of cloud and gets the impression that, in the city at large, her name has not been cleared. "Based on my experience as a prosecutor, 'cleared of criminal wrongdoing' means 'We know you're guilty; we just can't prove it.'"

She says the lingering effects on her reputation have already hurt her in the job market and seriously handicapped her aspiration to one day become a judge.

With all that, Page's story is about to enter a new chapter: the lawsuit phase. In September, Miller wrote the city attorney's office a "demand letter," saying her case had "striking similarities" to another Dallas police case, dating back to 1989, in which Willard Rollins demoted two narcotics detectives after they complained he imperiled their lives. That case ended up with the city paying more than $1 million in damages.

In the Page matter, he wrote, the police were faced with "a public relations quandary of explaining to an inquiring media why numerous cases against rather notorious slumlords had to be dismissed...The police department targeted Ms. Page as their scapegoat." What ensued, he said, was a systematic attempt to ruin Page's reputation and career.

These days, Page is back at work in the municipal courthouse, bringing speeders and owners of unmowed lawns to justice. And once again she's working side by side with Dallas cops.

When Page is asked whether she trusts them, her reply has the ring of real life. "I don't think the problems are with the department as a whole, just certain members," she says. "I go to court with officers every day, and we have a great rapport. Some are hilarious. They'll say, 'Here comes the money launderer. Hide your money!' or 'Can you put me on your payroll?' When they're serious they say, 'Go get a piece of them.' You know, for all the little underdogs who have been unjustly accused or punished, they're saying, 'Get a piece for me.'"


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