Shut Up, Fido

This is such a strange town. You could never explain this place to a Martian, or a person from St. Paul, or somewhere like that. The Dallas Morning News is supposed to be the voice of the local conservative business establishment. But for some months, the editorial page staff has been promoting the idea that the FBI needs to wrap up its corruption probe of the Dallas school system pronto and forget about any big new revelations.

The "thinking" is that the school board needs to borrow one or two billion dollars in the bond market soon, and it would help the district's creditworthiness to have this whole corruption-probe business called off.

At one point, the News said, "...with [U.S. Attorney Paul] Coggins planning to step down when the Clinton administration leaves office, the Dallas schools investigation is expected to wind down without any more major charges."

Not true.

And anyway, is the idea here that the G-men should shut down a 2-year-old corruption probe because the target of their investigation needs to borrow money? I worry that even describing this notion in print may disturb the eternal slumber of Elliot Ness.

Op-Ed columnist Hank Tatum wrote a piece last month ("Federal prosecutor shouldn't leave schools in limbo") saying Coggins needed to get the DISD probe wrapped up before leaving office because, "Until the probe concludes, the public will always have doubts."

Now, Henry. Do you honestly think shutting down the FBI investigation will improve the district's credit rating? The last estimate of the bond issue the school system needs to get passed by the voters was $1.6 billion. Let's role-play this thing. Let's pretend you and I, Hank, are sitting in front of the banker's desk trying to borrow a couple bil'. And we tell him, "Look, we talked to some people we know, and we got that big federal fraud probe of us closed down. As far as any results, it was inconclusive. So, uh, when do we get our check?"

The only person I can think of who could get away with a speech like that is Al Pacino.

Coggins sounded miffed when I talked to him. He pointed out that he did send former Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez to the Big House for fraud.

Coggins said: "It strikes me as ludicrous to suggest that, after sending a superintendent off to prison, anything else we could do short of dynamiting the whole place could shake up the system any more than we already have."

Yeah, but see, he keeps thinking in terms of justice. The Morning News thinks the traditional Dallas way, in terms of smoothing everything over so you can get the cash flow going again.

After all, we have a lot of big dogs--banks, construction companies, land flippers, and so on--who depend on that big cash flow at DISD.

Fortunately for the rest of us, the FBI does have significant leads. According to the people I talked to, one of whom was Coggins, the FBI is working on five or six pretty good criminal cases involving the district. One source, who spoke to me on background, said an additional case just came in over the transom within the last few weeks and looks strong.

Lori Bailey, the spokeswoman for the Dallas office of the FBI, declined to discuss any particulars about the school probe, but she did say that Danny Defenbaugh, the special agent in charge, is not at all inclined to hurry things up or cut his investigation short "for political reasons."

Bailey's description of the probe jibed with what Coggins and others said: The FBI hasn't added any new agents to the investigation recently, but it certainly hasn't pulled anybody off. The DISD probe is a going concern, and it's going to take awhile.

This is unlike the "internal investigations" and so-called outside audits that DISD itself has conducted or paid for in the past few years. The main one, carried out by KPMG, one of the world's largest accounting firms, took more than a year to complete, cost the district $1.5 million, and resulted in a slender 24-page report.

I have been assured by DISD, after making a legal demand for the full audit report, that this slim pamphlet is the entire work product. I used to do free-lance writing for a major accounting firm. This audit report is slimmer than the sales pitches we used to write trying to get small Oklahoma banks to hire us to do audits.

The report contains all kinds of promising innuendo, such as the following description of all the other inside investigations DISD has done: "KPMG has received numerous allegations regarding reported cover-ups of in-house investigations of alleged wrongdoing at DISD. The perceived appearance of a lack of independence by the individuals in internal audit, security, and employee relations assigned to investigate such matters only helps to add to a culture of politics, suspicion, and distrust."