Paul Coggins' Report on the DISD Mess Has Just Enough Fiction to Screw Mike Miles
Superintendent Mike Miles didn't write the letter. Mike Miles didn't tell Kevin Smelker to write the letter. Mike Miles didn't edit the letter. The narrative painted by Paul Coggins in his recent investigative report to the Dallas school board is a fiction.
Last week former U.S. Attorney Coggins gave the board an "investigative report" accusing the embattled superintendent of schools of ghost-writing a resignation letter that disparaged the board. But what Coggins gave the board in exchange for a fee of $100,000 was not an investigative report. It was a biased lawyer's brief playing fast and loose with facts, written to make help his clients save face.
What letter? Well, wait one second. I'll do a thumbnail, promise. But first let me confess. I'm sticking to my assertion about the report being a biased lawyer's brief, not a true investigation, but I do not know that my assertions above about the letter are fact. I wanted to make a point.
My assertions above about the letter are every bit as plausible and credible, based on the core evidence in the Coggins report, as Coggins' assertions that Miles did write a resignation letter for departing chief of operations Kevin Smelker as part of a conspiratorial campaign to disparage the board.
Thumbnail: TV lady, head of district communications, falls out with super, leaves in huff, accuses super of corruption and bullying. Board hires Coggins, now in private practice, to investigate claims at cost of a hundred grand. He finds zip zilch nada on TV lady's claims, possibly making board look stupid, but tosses them bone: Super, he says, forced a departing executive to write a letter saying everything bad in the school district is the fault of the board, not super, then super persuaded stupid, el dupo-doopski, Detroit-native, free tabloid, whack-job Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze -- but substantially better looking than Morning News twit editorial-writer Tod Robberson -- to publish letter.
Coggins says in his report: "Based upon the sequence of events, we believe that Superintendent Miles had substantial input into the form and content of Smelker's letter ... On June 21, the day after the resignation letter was executed, Superintendent Miles had multiple conversations with (two other people) and Jim Schutze, who later published an article that appears to have accomplished Superintendent Miles' intended effect -- that is, positive publicity for him and negative publicity for the board."
But, wait. Check that word, "later." Hey, when did I do my first story about Smelker? Yeah later. A week later. And it wasn't about the letter. I don't think I even had the letter at that time. So what did I write about? Smelker! The story was Smelker, not some damn letter. We try to write stuff here at the free tabloid that people might actually read. (Journalism 101 note to guy at News: Letters not good stories. People good stories. Every little chance, do good stories.)
On the afternoon of June 24, 2013, I'm in my pickup driving west on Maple Avenue toward the feed store to buy some kind of seed for my wife's chickens that costs about $20 an ounce, and my phone rings. It's one of the school district guys I've been trying to reach for weeks, Smelker, who is quitting as chief of operations. At the time I still think his name is Smetzer.
For the next 35 minutes I'm sitting half-blocking the driveway of a shop in triple-digit heat while this man literally pours out his heart, tells me of his devotion to Mike Miles and the mission of school reform in Dallas. He tells me about the shocking conditions he found when he went out to inspect Dallas school buildings, about his passionate commitment to doing something about it and his bitter disappointment over departing with the job undone.
He makes one thing clear. The narrative presented by the education beat writers at the News and the main investigative reporter at WFAA-Channel 8 TV is bullshit. People are not ditching high positions at the school district because of problems with the superintendent. They're leaving because half the members of the school board are ruthlessly abusive of top staff in and out of public view.
Smelker told me he was at the point of deciding it was foolish to appear before the school board without a personal lawyer at his side. The Morning News and Channel 8 have made a lot out of the board of trustees being the bosses of the management team. Obviously that is true. But where do things stand when you have to say, "Hi, boss, happy to have a meeting, but do you mind if my lawyer sits in with me?"
C'mon. Happy trails, right?
That's what I wrote about. No letter. It was a story I had been chasing for months, because the narrative presented in the daily paper and on Channel 8 was such obvious bullshit. I go to meetings. I see board members slapping the shit out of top staff. Top staff quits. Then the board members say, "See, they're quitting because Miles is a schmuck," and the News prints it.
Doesn't add up. Counter-intuitive. That's kind of where we go, here at the free tabloid. One tends to trust the evidence of one's eyes. Smelker calling me was a break. Letter-shmetter. Who needs a letter?
So what was Coggins' evidence that Miles wrote the letter and dished it to me? On page 43 of his report, he cites a security guard who heard Miles say something on the phone about Smelker and a letter. Curiously, Coggins doesn't say what the guard heard. Maybe he never asked the guard what he heard. I'll explain why I say that in a minute.
In his report Coggins talks about emails by which Miles "exchanged" copies of the Smelker letter with other people. Coggins' supporting material does include emails in which people sent the letter to Miles. But it offers nothing to show that Miles ever sent the letter back to anybody. How is that an exchange? How does that support the narrative of collaboration?
Coggins lists phone calls between Miles, Smelker and media relations consultant Lisa LeMaster. One lasts 24 minutes. One is two minutes. Two are three minutes each. But Coggins doesn't say what was said. Maybe he never asked.
Later Coggins lists a text message from Miles to me. Doesn't say what the text message said. Didn't ask me. In fact Coggins spun this entire narrative with me as the end-point and principal dupe, but Coggins never called me. Never tried to reach me.
I called Coggins a couple days ago and asked him why didn't call me. He asked me if I wanted to tell him when and how I got the Smelker letter. I said no. He said he knew I would say that, so that's why he didn't call.
That is super-weak, man. I would have told him lots of other things, had he called, all of which would have worked against the conspiratorial collaboration narrative in his report. He knew that. I think he didn't call me and he didn't ask other people what they really said because he was stringing together a bunch of zilch evidence to help out his client, and he didn't want to hear anything that might break his string.
Let me give you some other examples in his report. The whole reason for the external investigation in the first place was a claim that Miles had tried to squelch the original internal investigation by an investigative department within the district. The head of that department said he couldn't carry out a good investigation because Miles, his boss, had called him up and told him to be "discreet," which he interpreted to mean Miles wanted him to deep-six any bad evidence about Miles.
But the same guy is quoted in supporting material to the Coggins investigation saying Miles told him to be "fast, thorough and confidential." Later, in another statement, the guy changes the last word to "discreet."
So why wouldn't Coggins have said, "Wait a minute. Which is it?"
"Fast, thorough and confidential" sounds like full-speed ahead to me. As a matter of fact, "fast, through and discreet" sounds like full-speed ahead. Don Smith, the head the investigative unit of the school district, publicly interpreted "discreet" to mean "sit on the evidence." But why?
Smith has been lobbying the school board for a year to take his department out from under the superintendent and make him a stand-alone inspector-general reporting directly to the board. He has failed so far in that effort, but he is very involved in board politics. Smith does not come into this picture with clean hands, politically. So if Coggins was a truly even-handed and thorough investigator here, why would he not have challenged Smith on his conflicting versions of a quote that sort of started this whole ball rolling?
Let me give another window on what Coggins is really up to this report. The back-story is sort of blah-blah-blah, but Coggins basically wants to tell the board that Miles violated district policy by having his consultant, LeMaster, hire a retired school district executive, Rene Martinez, even though Martinez had not yet served out the required arms-length period before he can come back to work for the district as a consultant. In a footnote, Coggins says Lemaster "hired Rene Martinez to assist her."
That's not true. She did not hire him. She and Martinez both told Coggins she did not hire him. Both offered to let Coggins examine their financial and tax records. They told me that Coggins admitted to them the footnote was wrong.
So I called him. I asked if he had admitted to LeMaster and Martinez that the footnote was wrong. Coggins said, "We have no evidence that Lisa LeMaster paid Rene Martinez. And, 'hired,' if it implies there was any payment, it probably should have been 'consulted with' or 'used as a consultant.'"
Oh, c'mon. "Consulted with" and "used as a consultant" imply the same thing "hired" does. If the footnote was wrong, if it was a mistake, how about saying it was wrong and a mistake?
So what's going on here really? Is Paul Coggins a bad guy? No. He's a good lawyer. Everybody I know who knows Coggins thinks he's a very good lawyer. But as a lawyer here, he is delivering to his client a brief, an argument that the client can use in the court of public opinion.
They can say, "See. We didn't just throw a hundred large in the toilet. There's this thing in here about that youthful-appearing dupe at the free tabloid and so on."
Coggins' basic work product has to be a major disappointment for those members of the board who hoped he would come back with criminal wrongdoing on Miles. He stuck to the facts on that stuff, and he deserves credit for that.
But on all of this add-on crap about the Smelker letter, Coggins is clearly willing to avoid facts, bend facts, shift facts and invent facts in order to give the client a consolation prize. So let's imagine what the outcome might have been for Coggins had he not thrown them this bone? If his report had said, "Nope, you got nothing. You're just wrong, Miles is clean." -- what then?
I guarantee you those board members would have been telling all their political pals around town, "Man, don't ever hire that son of bitch Paul Coggins to do a hit for you. He'll take your money and throw you under the bus." Coggins knows that.
So he threw Miles under the bus. Hey. It's what they paid him a hundred grand to do.
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