City Hall

In Dallas' Infamous City Hall Fingergate, Griggs Is the One Owed an Apology

For the sake of the record and now that a Dallas County grand jury has dismissed felony coercion charges against Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs, let’s go back and look at the level of dishonesty and trickery in the instigation of the charges, in the police investigation and in the charges themselves.

Griggs was accused by police of bullying an assistant city secretary, specifically by “screaming” at her, according to the police report, warning her not to “push” or post the official notice of an upcoming council meeting. The police report accused Griggs of telling Assistant City Secretary Bilierae Johnson, “You better not push those briefing materials out or I will break your fucking fingers.”

After a grand jury tossed the charges against Griggs this week, Mayor Mike Rawlings issued a statement saying the entire matter, “should serve as another reminder that we must treat our staff with dignity and respect.”

Our own coverage and news reports in most other local media made note of the fact that Griggs, while denying he ever uttered the words in the police report, did subsequently apologize to Johnson for harsh language.

I worry that the combined effect of the mayor’s statement and the apology may create an impression that the narrative in the police report was truthful — that Griggs really did talk that way to a woman in the city secretary’s office. In fact, the full weight of the evidence is that the story in the police report was a lie. The decision of the grand jury should be taken as evidence they probably thought it was a lie, too.

First, the apology. And I need to state clearly here that neither Griggs nor his wife has ever discussed a syllable of this matter with me. My understanding of it comes mainly from Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston, and was confirmed by others with close knowledge of the case.

Griggs was sent word from the staff of Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk that a simple apology, without any admission of guilt or reference to the alleged facts, would clear the matter. The charges were not being taken seriously by the DA. The case would go in the trashcan if Griggs told somebody he was sorry for something.

So he did. So would you. So would I. These were felony charges. Once indicted for a felony, Griggs would have found himself deep in the turbulent waters of the criminal justice system, where outcomes are wildly unpredictable. His career and his family’s well-being were at stake. In that situation, it’s not an exaggeration to call charges like these a life-and-death matter. A simple and nonspecific apology seemed like a small price to pay to make it all go away.

He made the apology. But the case didn’t go away. Instead, the DA went away. No one knew where. She was gone for a month or so before reporters for The Dallas Morning News dug out the fact that she was being treated for a mental disorder.

I received very explicit requests during this time — not from Griggs — that I refrain from writing things that might be seen as goading the AWOL DA on the Griggs matter. I knew about the deal offer — dismissal in exchange for an apology. I knew Griggs had done his part of the deal but Hawk had not reciprocated.

Frankly, this case was a major reason I have been so utterly out of patience with people telling me it didn’t make any difference that Hawk was on mental health leave because the ship was sailing itself.

No. The ship does not sail itself. It is in the nature of ships like the DA’s office that they do not sail by committee. Those ships must have captains.

The Griggs matter was probably only one of dozens where no underling was going to make a dispositive decision absent a green flag from the captain, who was AWOL. Kingston has been raising important questions about whether Hawk’s underlings even have legal authority to make certain decisions in her absence. The Griggs matter would indicate that when they do make decisions, even about obviously meretricious charges, it’s to punt to the grand jury.

It was absurd for this case to go to a grand jury. The original police report described Johnson, the assistant city secretary, as the “complainant.” The police investigator who signed the report had to know that was not true.

Johnson declined to be a complainant. In addition, a close reading of the report reveals that of the six “witnesses” interviewed, not one said he or she had witnessed the alleged incident.

So what was this all about? The entire context of the charges brought against Griggs screams politics and malevolence. The “investigation” took place eight days after the incident. When it was completed, the police department took the very unusual step of posting the investigative report on its web page. The mayor, the city attorney and the city manager all issued official statements.

Somewhere lost in this tangle, a real incident did occur. In early April, Griggs and Kingston had been involved in a very tough days-long, toe-to-toe struggle with the city manager over their demand for release of information about the Trinity toll road. After angry debate and frayed tempers on all sides, Griggs and Kingston won that fight.

But almost immediately after that victory, they learned that the mayor was calling for a hurry-up, special called meeting of the City Council to authorize a redesign of the toll road by a group of outside experts the mayor was calling his “dream team.”

This was a move that had enormous implications for the May 9 mayoral and City Council elections, less than a month off at the time. Griggs and Kingston were leaders of a citywide movement seeking to make the toll road the central issue in the election. They wanted to see voters elect a slate of candidates opposed to the mayor’s plan for the road.

Polling at the time was showing a strong majority of voters opposed to the mayor’s plan. But if Rawlings could go to voters in the last week before the election and effectively say the whole plan was going to be redone by his outside experts, then he might be able to defuse some of the anti-toll-road sentiment and help pro-toll-road candidates at the polls.

The mayor’s problem was that the entire “dream team” idea was only dreamed up at the very last minute. He and his allies on the council found themselves up against a squeaker of a last-minute deadline to call a special meeting and get the dream team authorized before the election.

The last possible date a special called meeting could be squeezed into the council calendar before the May 9 election was April 16. In order to call a meeting at 1 p.m. on the 16th, an official notice of the meeting had to be posted 72 hours prior, by 1 p.m. on the 13th, and the notice had to include an agenda saying whether the council would vote or not vote at that meeting.

Griggs and Kingston were watching for the notice. As 1 p.m. approached on the 13th, Griggs saw that the notice had not yet been posted. He sent his assistant to the city secretary’s office to check on it, then went there himself.

By the time Griggs arrived in the city secretary’s office, the 1 p.m. deadline had lapsed, the notice was not yet up online, and by then Griggs had been shown at least two different or altered versions of the notice, especially with regard to the time and date stamp to show when it was allegedly posted online. He demanded that the city manager and city attorney be called to the city secretary’s office before any more action was taken.

When City Attorney Warren Ernst arrived, he examined the notices and the time stamps and ruled that the notice had been properly posted. It was Ernst’s call to make. Griggs, also an attorney, accepted Ernst’s decision and left.

Were voices raised? Almost certainly. Were people upset? Sure. These were grownups fighting over issues they all took seriously. But when Ernst ruled, Griggs bowed out.

Here is how the police report characterized the scene:

“When witness [name redacted] arrived in Complainant Johnson’s office [note that she was not a complainant], Suspect Griggs began screaming at her [emphasis added] regarding the documents he wanted, stating this is bullshit and someone had the documents.

“Witness [name redacted] stated when he [emphasis added] arrived, Witness [name redacted] looked shaken, and Complainant [not a complainant] Johnson had a blank look on her face. The atmosphere in the office was tense and had the appearance of that of a bully and his victims.” 

Let me repeat: In all of this, not one witness interviewed by the police saw or heard the statement at the heart of the coercion charge about breaking fingers. That statement isn’t attributed to anyone. The only reasonable attribution based on the police report is to the police investigator, who offers no corroboration.

A week before the May 9 election, Mayor Rawlings issued a public statement saying: “This matter is being handled in accordance with proper Dallas Police Department procedures. The Dallas County District Attorney will determine the next steps. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the specifics of the matter.

“We all have a responsibility to be civil and to treat the hard-working people who run this city with the respect and compassion that they deserve. We must conduct ourselves with appropriate decorum and set an example for our constituents and fellow public servants.”

City Manager A.C. Gonzalez issued a statement the same day saying that Dallas Police Chief David Brown, “believes that the nature of these allegations warrants further action, and has referred all testimony and other evidence to a Dallas County Grand Jury.”
Actually, the case went to Hawk, whose decision it was to toss it or send it to the grand jury. Again, I think the charges against Griggs were only one of many recent instances in which cases that would never have gone to the grand jury did go there because in Hawk’s absence and in an atmosphere of extreme uncertainty in her office no one had the courage to kill the case on his or her own.

Even though the police report is badly put together and sloppily written, a close reading of it points to a probable conclusion about the real “complainant.” The so-called complainant, the instigator of the charges, had to be one of the people who showed up in the city secretary’s office after Griggs demanded that Ernst and Gonzalez or their representatives appear there to settle the matter of the unposted notice.

That makes the secret complainant a city employee of fairly high rank. That the city staff would lend itself to an overtly political vendetta of this nature and use its control over the police department to shield the accuser from daylight is utterly reprehensible.

Instead of a public statement making a deceptive reference to Griggs' so-called apology, what the mayor needed to publish was his own apology. He needed to apologize for allowing this kind of gutter-level vindictive behavior on his watch, and he needed to promise that the real complainant would be named and then brought out into the scouring rays of the Texas sun.

This case shows us several unpleasant facts about our city. In the internecine battles at City Hall, some combatants are willing to use life-and-death tactics of intimidation. The Police Department can be bent to their service.

The district attorney is not the check and balance she is supposed to be under the law, because she’s out of service. The city manager will use his authority to enable cloak-and-dagger attacks. The mayor will attempt to profit politically from those attacks.

The only apology due anybody in all this is to Scott Griggs and his family. I’d say I’m not holding my breath, but, you know what? I am. It should happen. I truly hope it will. There are people in this who should be deeply ashamed of themselves, and I hope one day they will ask Griggs to forgive them.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze