Maybe we need to have a little bit of Journalism 101 here. There seem to be some people around town who don’t quite know how it works. Professor Schutze is always glad to assist.
A major political dust storm erupted at City Hall after my cover story appeared last week based on audio tapes of police interviews in the 2015 assault case against Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs, now a candidate for mayor. The dust was no surprise. The recordings showed plainly that the charges against Griggs were invented and fictitious.
Largely forgotten in the intervening years, the phony assault allegation against Griggs is now being churned again by The Dallas Morning News editorial page in a transparent attempt to dirty up Griggs’ front-runner status in a crowded field for mayor. In the recordings we published, police investigators interviewed witness after witness, some of whom would have to have heard the threatening remarks attributed to Griggs had he made them. All of the witnesses said they did not hear any of what Griggs was accused of saying to then-assistant secretary Bilierae Johnson.
More stunningly, Johnson herself is heard telling a police investigator that nothing occurred. Later, not on tape, after what sounds in the recordings like it was some vigorous witness-coaching by a former city attorney, Johnson said Griggs had threatened her. A grand jury heard the evidence and declined to take action. No charges were ever brought against Griggs by anyone. The matter effectively died until the News brought it up again recently in an attempt to make a campaign issue of it.
Since the story with the audio tapes came out, I have been aware of a whole lot of churn and burn going on in City Hall circles concerning how I got the recordings and whether I violated the law or somebody’s privacy by publishing them. The first and most important thing to say is that the audio recordings are public information — totally, explicitly, unequivocally.
The second thing is this: Except for one person, I never ever tell anyone anything about how I get information. I sometimes use public information demands under state and federal public information laws, but I do that as seldom as possible, because I don’t like those laws. They bug me. Those laws are set up to suppress more information than they provide; public information requests leave a track record that lets other jug-heads know what I’m up to; and it takes too long. I was a baby reporter before they even had public information laws. I was taught to get information by making friends with people’s pissed off girlfriends.
I do always tell one person where I get my information. My editor. You have to tell your editor. She or he has to know where and how you get your stuff. But I never ever tell anyone else.
Let me address a couple of the rumors I have heard floating around town about the audio recordings. One is that the only person outside the police department who could have had custodianship of these recordings was Griggs, who would have obtained them through a legal process called discovery, where the prosecution must provide defense attorneys with certain kinds of information against their client.
Nope. In this matter, there was no discovery. There were no charges. There was only a grand jury proceeding. Everything a grand jury hears is secret to the tomb.
On the other hand, Griggs did have an important role in making all of the information in this matter public. In fact no one worked harder to make the information public in this case than Griggs did at the time, which should tell us something.
(below: recording of Bilierae Jonson interviewed by Dallas police investigator in 2015)
The alleged incident occurred April 13, 2015. Beginning Aug. 31, 2015, and continuing through September, Elizabeth Findell of The Dallas Morning News peppered city officials with a series of demands for information in the case. Griggs saw the demands. He decided the best disinfectant was total unlimited daylight. On Oct. 14, 2015, Griggs asked the City Council to pass a special resolution waiving any attorney-client privilege that might protect him from the release of information in the case. In other words, Griggs asked the city to stop protecting his privacy so that every scrap of evidence in the case, even the notes and work papers of lawyers, could be made public. The council voted unanimously to support Griggs’ resolution.
Police investigative files are sometimes sealed in cases that do not result in formal charges, but the legal argument for doing so is protection of the privacy of the accused. By forgoing that protection for himself, Griggs rendered all of the evidence public, not just passively public under the definitions of the law, but actively out there for anyone interested enough to go pick up a copy. I can tell you that I was always very interested.
I think this is a really important point, because it goes to people’s core motivations. Griggs, the accused, wanted everyone to see every shred of evidence on every side of the story. Back then and now again on the editorial page, The Dallas Morning News has wanted people to see only the accusation and none of the much more persuasive exculpatory evidence.
Has the Morning News simply not been in possession of the exculpatory evidence all this time? That’s a little hard to fathom. In her last demand letter to the city for information in the case, dated Sept. 22, 2015, Morning News reporter Findell asked pointedly for “copies of all witness statements and officer reports involving the Scott Griggs/Bilierae Johnson case.” That would have been the audio. That was the same day the grand jury killed the case. Griggs less than a month later won a unanimous council vote to make it all public and to release everything.
And yet somehow in four years, while The Dallas Morning News editorial page browbeats Griggs and browbeats us at the Observer as if the charges were true, no one at the Morning News has had time to listen to those recordings of the witnesses saying it didn’t happen. Amazing.
When Mike Wilson, the editor of the Morning News, took over the paper in June 2015, he told a story about a lesson he had learned as a young newsroom intern: “If there’s a dog in the story,” Wilson said, “get the name of the dog, because the name will say something about the owner.” To that I would add, “But don’t bring the dog back to the paper and chain it up in the basement without food or water, because that’s not very nice.”
Of course this is all inside baseball to you — a bunch of newspaper people niff-gnawing about how we do our jobs. I agree. What is truly important is the content of those recordings.
A commenter on our original story faulted me for not reporting that police investigators went back to the witnesses and asked them if it was possible Griggs had said something else to Johnson that they might not have overheard. They all said that was theoretically possible. I think the commenter was right, and I should have included that fact. But it changes nothing. The fact remains that some of the witnesses heard the entire relevant exchange when Griggs got mad, an argument over the release of documents, and they heard the part of the exchange in which Griggs did raise his voice. Griggs shouted at former City Attorney Warren Ernst that his decision about the matter was “bullshit.”
That’s all anyone heard. The more lurid remarks supposedly included in that exchange — a threat shouted by Griggs that he would break Johnson’s “fucking fingers” — were not heard by anyone except Johnson. That simply is not plausible. By the way, Griggs also took and passed a lie detector test, something Johnson might want to try.
Another astute observer objected that I had provided only snippets of the audios to buttress my case and not the full recordings. True. It had to do with managing bulky files. I did provide access to the full audio files in my personal Dropbox account. I hope that works for you. If it does not, let me know, and we will work out something better.
So with all of that said and done, I would like to make a final case to you. In this matter, only one party was eager to get all of the facts and every scrap of information out on the table in full public view. Scott Griggs. The other side is still spending its time howling and complaining about how the exculpatory information became public. The argument that the audio recordings are not public is wrong and specious, but it’s also the wrong thing to argue about. What about what those recordings tell us? That’s the issue.
I know I have said this before a bunch of times, but I have to say it again. We need to stop and think about the kind of people who would do something like this. None of this happened in a vacuum. Griggs and fellow council member Philip Kingston had caught the mayor, the city attorney, the city manager and The Dallas Morning News in a series of serious public deceptions involving the Trinity toll road, gas drilling in parks, a wasteful decorative bridge that still can’t be opened, an absurdly expensive fake kayaking structure that the city had to tear out of the river under orders from the federal government. The list goes on and on.
And so this is how they come back. With a lie that would destroy a man’s life and seriously cripple his family. That’s how they play, and that alone should tell us everything we need to know.