Anatomy of a smear

Robin Page had been home from her job as an assistant Dallas city attorney for only a day when reporters began calling and showing up at her doorstep. That she would be their quarry, rather than the poorly run unit of the Dallas Police Department with which she had worked, was what astonished her. She wouldn't understand why they came to her door until many months later, long after the story's temperature had cooled.

On this day in mid-April, it was news on a boil. Channel 8 had parked in front of Page's tidy brick home in suburban Mesquite, with The Dallas Morning News minutes behind. Channel 4 had called earlier, the very night Page was suspended, and Channel 5 already had a story in the works -- minus Page's side of things. All had been briefed by the cops on Page's alleged misdeeds, and who wouldn't jump at what was being hinted at: a city attorney on the take?

"That day was the first time I cried over it," Page recalls of a three-month episode that would leave a big, ugly stain on her career. "When I opened my door and there was Valeri Williams and a camera in my face, I knew this was real."

On Friday, April 8, the 34-year-old lawyer had been summoned to then-Interim City Attorney Angela Washington's office and told she was being put on indefinite leave pending the outcome of an investigation by the police department's public integrity unit.

Page was flabbergasted, but Washington gave her no hint of what the allegations against her were. Page recalls that when she started to pose that question, she was told not to speak. Her orders were to turn in her Dallas Police Department Police Attorney badge, her magnetic key and the key to her office, and her pager. She would be on administrative leave until a corruption investigation and a city attorney's office review were completed. She was told it might be a good idea to hire a lawyer.

That weekend, Page says, a reporter for Channel 4 called and said he had been tipped to the story. "He said I was being accused of bribery involving hundreds of cases," remembers Page, who suddenly could see her law career, the stability of her young family, and her loyalty and pride in working for the city of Dallas going down the sewer. Over the next two weeks, a variety of reporters contacted Page and, in the course of getting her side, expanded on what they had heard. Page gathered that the investigation involved a suggestion that she had improper dealings with the Topletzes -- a wealthy family headed by two elderly brothers who own roughly 500 rent houses in inner-city Dallas. And that's what went on the air.

The reporters -- including Williams, who had been looking into residents' complaints of drug dealing, gun play, and murders at Topletz houses in Oak Cliff and South Dallas -- and the Morning News had been led by the police to believe the investigation was about the Topletzes.

But it was not.

Internal police department memos authorizing the probe show that former Executive Assistant Chief Willard Rollins launched the investigation on another matter -- involving a letter Page wrote in support of state tax abatements for another landlord. That accusation turned out to be just as thin and baseless as the Topletz allegations, which the detective on Page's case decided to check out later in his work because of all the fuss being made about them in the newspaper and on TV.

And why not start pulling stuff out of the newspapers? He had no other leads.

At the center of the charges, police documents show, there was...nothing. No sources. No incriminating checks or bank records or tape recordings or documents whatsoever. Not even an unidentified snitch. Police files made available to the Dallas Observer under Texas' open records act, as well as files obtained by Page and her ex-police officer husband, contain no trace of a probable cause, no possible starting point to suggest that Page was involved in criminality or that anything criminal had occurred in any of the cases on which she worked. The detective who worked on the case had so little to go on, so little to check out, that he was reduced to calling up one of the "implicated" apartment owners and asking, "Did you give Robin Page money?"

The apartment owner, Alex Stolarski, recalls laughing into the phone and asking why in the world Dallas was turning on this level-headed, dedicated public servant.

Why was a seven-year city employee with performance-review scores between "good" and "excellent" and an apparently satisfied supervisor subject to a three-month, leaked-to-the-press, cameras-in-the-face investigation that ended with a lingering hint that, well, given all the noise she must have done something?