If a $7 bounced dog license check doesn't strike you as the stuff of political intrigue, you haven't been to City Hall lately--where Dallas' blame game has dipped to an absurd level.
Before Checkgate--or Doggiegate, if you prefer--was over, Mayor Ron Kirk had received a racially insulting letter, and fired off a nasty, not to mention grammatically questionable, threat of his own to a well-known City Hall gadfly.
It started on November 15 last year when M. Jeanne Kudlicki, a retired interior decorator, wrote a $7 check to the city of Dallas to register her dog, Kelly.
Two weeks later, an animal control services worker put Kudlicki's check, along with other receipts, into a bank bag. Animal control services staff handed the bag over to a city courier to transfer it to the Water Utilities department, where armored trucks pick up the city's checks and payments for deposit.
Murphy's Law promptly kicked in. The courier apparently put the animal control services bank bag under the truck's seat during a stop--to ensure it wasn't stolen--and forgot it was there.
Several weeks later, according to a memo from Assistant City Manager Ramon Miquez, who investigated the issue, mystified workers in animal control services realized that they had not received the usual confirmation that the deposit had been made. "They began to research what had happened to the paperwork, thinking it was a documentation problem," Miquez states in his memo. That "research" would last five months and come up with nothing.
Meanwhile, Kudlicki, who had long suffered from cancer, died on January 20.
In mid-March, Kudlicki's full-bred collie, for whom the check had been written, also passed away, under unusual circumstances. The dog, according to the widower, Sieg Kudlicki, had an intense fear of thunder. Home alone during a loud storm one night, the terrified Kelly clawed its way onto a kitchen counter only to fall down and break its back. The next day, the widower had to have his wife's beloved dog destroyed.
In early April, Sieg Kudlicki finally closed his wife's account at her bank. "I did notice that one check had not cleared," he recalls. But his wife's check register simply noted it as "animal registration."
"I assumed she had tried to give the money to some kind of charity," Mr. Kudlicki says.
Back at City Hall, the workers at animal control services finally got a break in their "research." They were notified on April 21 that an unopened bag of checks had been discovered in the courier vehicle. The checks, including Mrs. Kudlicki's $7 check, were taken to the bank, this time without incident.
Mrs. Kudlicki's check, having been written on a now-closed account, promptly bounced sky-high. But when the bank returned the check to animal control, it cited only "insufficient funds." In the eyes of the city, Mrs. Kudlicki became a deadbeat--how dead, they had no idea.
In August--some nine months after the late Mrs. Kudlicki had written the check--the animal control services department sent her a collection notice. But the department now sought not just the original $7 for the dog registration, but an additional $25 penalty for having to deal with a bounced check.
After opening the letter addressed to his late wife, Sieg Kudlicki immediately telephoned animal control services to explain the situation and seek, at least, a reprieve from the bad check fee.
He got none.
"They were adamant about it," he recalls of his conversations with city workers. "I told them both the dog and my wife had passed away, but they didn't care."
It didn't take long for Frank Bodzin to hear about the widower's plight, and he promptly became outraged. An 80-year-old retiree, Bodzin, who ran unsuccessfully for a North Dallas city council seat, spends at least two days a month at City Hall as a self-appointed citizen watchdog. As often as he is allowed--once a month--Bodzin addresses the council at its meeting about various issues and concerns he sees fit to bring to its attention. He has spoken forcefully on several occasions against taxpayers' financing a new arena, and often on the injustice of storm drain fees.
Armed with the widower Kudlicki's pathetic story of bureaucratic bungling and insensitivity, Bodzin ripped into the council at a September 13 meeting. Standing at the podium, he explained how badly Mr. Kudlicki had been treated and how ludicrous and vindictive the city's collection efforts appeared, given its mismanagement of the deposit in the first place.
When Bodzin alerted the council members to the animal registration mishap, the matter quickly got the attention it needed. Collection efforts for the Kudlicki check were halted.
Even more impressive, several steps were taken to "prevent this problem from recurring and to strengthen internal controls," according to the memo from Assistant City Manager Miquez, whom city manager John Ware assigned to investigate the matter.
The city hired a private courier service to take checks to the bank. Animal control services stopped sending its deposits on such an indirect route--via Water Utilities--to the bank. The staff is now required to check daily for bank deposit slips and notify the controller's office if a deposit doesn't show up in seven days--instead of seven months. And as of May, animal registration is handled by a private contractor.
It should have been a satisfying ending to the Kudlicki tribulations. Unfortunately, there was another chapter to the registration affair that didn't end on a happy note--rather one of rage, specifically spite vented by the mayor.
A few days after Bodzin so effectively addressed the council about the Kudlicki outrage, Mayor Kirk received at his home an offensive handwritten letter that opened with a racial slur: "Definition of a Nigger: an ignorant black person whose conduct flaunts [sic] societal norms."
The letter, which carried the signature of Frank Bodzin, went on to complain that his name had been mispronounced by the mayor at the September 13 meeting.
Bodzin insisted that he did not write, endorse, or even know anything about that letter until this month, when council members, who had learned about the nasty missive from the mayor, asked him about it.
"I didn't know anything about it," Bodzin says of the letter. "I never use the N-word."
It does seem unlikely that Bodzin wrote the letter, according to council members and city staff members familiar with his usual correspondence. The letter is handwritten. Almost all of Bodzin's letters are produced on an old, easily identifiable manual typewriter. Also, the letter refers to Bodzin in the third person, an odd grammatical structure if he had written it. Finally, the letter's signature bears no resemblance to Bodzin's.
Perhaps more significantly, council members Donna Blumer and Paul Fielding say they have never heard Bodzin speak in a racially derogatory manner. And Blumer, who faced him as an opponent for her council seat, recalls that he was extremely proud of the endorsements he received from black groups.
But Mayor Kirk, upset by the letter, wouldn't even listen when he tried to explain that he did not write it, Bodzin says.
In a response dated September 20, the mayor wrote to Bodzin and made his anger about the racial comment plain, even to the point of making an implicit threat:
...Given the content of your letter I more fully understand your motive and sentiments and you can rest assured that the least of your problems in the future with [sic] be my pronunciation of your name.
"That last sentence is pretty disturbing," Blumer says.
At an October 11 council hearing, the denouement to this sorry story finally played out. Bodzin stood to address the council. Before he started to speak, however, the mayor left.
"I'm sorry the mayor walked out," Bodzin said. "I have been wronged. I have been accused of writing a letter I have no knowledge of.
"Contrary to his campaign rhetoric," Bodzin jabbed, "the mayor continues the blame game."
With that, mayor pro tem Max Wells cut Bodzin off. "Your time has expired," Wells told him.
But four other council members--Fielding, Don Hicks, Charlotte Mayes, and Blumer--came to Bodzin's defense. "I don't have a great relationship with you," Hicks told him. "But I don't believe you wrote that letter."
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The mayor returned to the council chambers in time to hear the members' support of Bodzin.
"I will accept your disavowal of that letter," Kirk told Bodzin. "I hope whoever is the perpetrator will come out from their cowardice."
Bodzin, unsatisfied, complains that it was a lukewarm apology at best.
Sieg Kudlicki, meanwhile, has received a formal letter of apology from the city about the $7 check fiasco.
But, he says, "I threw it out.