Reader beware

U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins--once referred to on these pages as "Publicity Paul"--usually seems more than happy to chat with reporters. Frequently, he sends them cards. He calls them with tips, and he has appeared at dozens of news conferences during his tenure to tout his office's good works.

But even the-far-from-media-shy Coggins expressed surprise at the lengths Mike Clark, an FBI supervisory special agent, went earlier this month while discussing the bureau's investigation of the Dallas Independent School District.

"Mike said far more than I would have," Coggins says.
Specifically, the federal prosecutor was commenting on the FBI agent's quotes in a front-page story in the December 14 edition of The Dallas Morning News.

Under the headline, "FBI probing DISD deals, official says, 2 firms' energy contracts targeted," staff writers Nora Lopez and Steve McGonigle reported that Clark had confirmed that his agency was investigating the "energy area."

"We're interested in anything that looks like an anomaly in the energy field, something that just doesn't make sense," Clark told the News.

The newspaper quoted "a federal source" as saying that agents had targeted Honeywell Inc. and the Johnson Controls Inc. contracts with the Dallas schools to improve energy efficiency in aging buildings.

A few paragraphs down, the story reiterated allegations about embattled Dallas schools chief financial officer Matthew Harden Jr. In a court filing, former DISD board president Kathleen Leos repeated allegations that Harden and his former subordinate Michael Henderson, who served as chief of the facilities department at DISD, had received payments of $1 million in connection with the energy contracts.

Both Harden and Henderson have denied the allegations. Harden, who sued Leos earlier, alleging she had conspired to invade his privacy when she participated with former DISD superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez in a scheme to put a tracker on his private car, had filed another claim against Leos accusing her of slander.

With the FBI confirmation of an investigation, however, Leos' allegations got a new breath of life.

To have the FBI agent comment publicly about a pending investigation--a departure from usual agency policy--lent a certain plausibility to the allegations against Harden. In the raging publicity battle between former DISD board president Leos, who is perceived to be representing the Hispanic interests, and Harden, who similarly gets linked to the African-American voices at the district, the FBI agent's comments gave the trustee the edge over the administrator.

But in the DISD political quagmire these days, the message is: Reader beware. With DISD stories, it's never entirely clear who is spinning whom and why. All the key players seem to pick and choose among media outlets for reasons unknown to readers and television viewers. Meanwhile, reporters pick and choose among sources.

In the case of Clark's comments, for instance, the FBI agent denies that his unusually candid comments were intended to have the effect of targeting Harden.

He claims instead that he was unaware that his openness about a pending investigation would lead observers to conclude that Harden was under investigation. He never intended to give anyone that impression, he says. "I don't know that anyone would make that quantum leap of logic," Clark remarks.

The FBI agent says he agreed to talk to the News about the investigation only because, months ago, former superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez had already announced publicly that his agency was investigating DISD. Clark says the News reporter called seeking an interview, and after getting approval from the front office, he agreed to elaborate generically on when the FBI has jurisdiction and what type of crimes it looks at.

Majorie Poche, the spokeswoman for the agency, also asserts that the agency did not intend, by departing from policy and commenting on a pending investigation, to advance the impression that Harden was targeted. But she concedes, "I know the story in The Dallas Morning News sounds like we did."

Poche says she did not know the story would appear on the front page. She thought it would be inside the metropolitan section in a generic story about how the FBI works. She says a DISD investigation "had already been confirmed" by others. "Usually," Poche says, "you don't confirm or deny, but at this point it's ludicrous to deny an investigation."

She lays the blame for any misimpression about Harden being targeted specifically at the feet of the News. "They might have used us to generically explain an investigation and then plugged it into a Harden story," Poche says.

Gilbert Bailon, executive editor of The Dallas Morning News, noted that so far the FBI's Clark has taken no steps to inform them that the paper quoted him out of context.

"We did not hear anything from the FBI that was quibbling with our story," Bailon says. The News editor says his reporter, McGonigle, went to interview Clark. In that chat, the FBI agent confirmed that his organization was investigating the energy area. But Clark would only say that typically in this type of investigation, contracts would be involved in the probe.

Clark did not, Bailon concedes, specifically name Harden or any other individual. Nor did the Morning News name Harden, Bailon says, until well into the story. "It was in the 11th or 12th graph that we mentioned Harden," Bailon says.

For his part, Harden and his lawyers from the aggressive downtown firm of Bickel & Brewer insist that they know of no FBI investigation of Harden.

Neverthless, Harden and his lawyers have tried to counter the News' coverage with other media outlets. When the newspaper ran a front-page story on December 21 stating that Harden had approved the award of $1.4 million in improper contracts, the DISD chief financial officer gave an exclusive interview to WFAA for the following evening's broadcast. He had not approved the contracts, Harden told Channel 8 reporter Doug Wilson--he had simply signed requisition forms that allowed the bills stemming from the contracts to be paid.

Harden says he had tried to tell News reporters about the distinction several times. "For them to imply that I had approved them was erroneous," Harden says.

Has Harden hired a criminal lawyer? His civil attorney Bill Brewer says no. "He told us he can't even remember if he ever took a pencil," Brewer says.

Asked why he hasn't hired a criminal lawyer, given how frequently his name appears in stories about FBI investigations, Hardens says: "I don't have a need to.


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