Target practice

A federal jury deliberated for only three hours before convicting William Risby, a roofing contractor, last Friday on 64 DISD-related counts that included charges of kickbacks, embezzlement, and conspiracy to defraud the school district of more than $385,000 for roofing repairs that were never performed. But as the proceedings unfolded the prior week in U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders' courtroom, it often seemed as if Risby wasn't the only defendant on trial.

"In some people's eyes, it was the Matthew Harden trial," says Harden, the former chief financial officer at DISD.

At the trial, assistant U.S. Attorney Madeleine Johnson, the prosecutor on the case, had her star witness--James Hargrave, a former school district roofing inspector who had pleaded guilty to embezzlement and agreed to cooperate with the government in exchange for leniency--testify that Risby had informed him he was paying kickbacks to Harden.

"Risby told me we need to get more money to people at DISD," Hargrave told the jury last Wednesday, according to an account in The Dallas Morning News. "He told me two or three times he needed $20,000. That Harden needed it for the house he's building. He needed money ASAP."

For Harden, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing at DISD and any involvement in kickback schemes, the troubling testimony follows months of stories and speculation about his alleged crimes at the district.

A 19-year DISD veteran who had quietly risen to the role of chief financial officer, Harden first exposed himself to public recrimination on September 12, 1997, after he filed a lawsuit in state district court against then-Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez. Harden alleged that Gonzalez had slandered him, tried to force him to resign, and invaded his privacy by having a tracking device planted on his car. He also revealed in the suit that he and Gonzalez had a personal relationship that went far beyond their professional one, and claimed that he had become the target of her jealousy and vindictiveness. In the tumultuous months that followed, Gonzalez resigned as superintendent, pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges--having pilfered DISD funds to pay for bedroom furniture--and began serving her sentence in federal prison. Harden, in turn, sued the school board for conspiring to deprive him of his livelihood and discriminating against him because of his race.

Six months ago, Harden settled his differences with the board by agreeing to quit the district in exchange for a $600,000 lump-sum payment.

Since then, however, when U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins and his assistants have publicly commented about their continuing DISD investigation, they have consistently insinuated that Harden is linked to wrongdoing at DISD--though never going so far as to actually name him as a target.

The Dallas Observer reported in March that an unnamed assistant U.S. attorney (who was, in fact, Madeleine Johnson) responded to a query at a social gathering about whether Harden was a crook or just incompetent, by saying: "Oh, we think he is a lot more than just incompetent. But whether it can ever be proven is another thing."

In April, when U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins announced that Hargrave had pleaded guilty, the prosecutor told reporters, "This investigation has been on a fast track from day one, and it just got on a supersonic track. Obviously, high-ranking DISD officials were part of the embezzlement scheme. It didn't begin and end with James Hargrave."

There was little doubt that Coggins was talking about Harden.
However, it wasn't until the Risby trial that Johnson sent a clear message to Harden that she was gunning for him. In her opening statements to the jury, the prosecutor mentioned that Risby had relationships with top DISD officials, including Harden, before the roofing contractor started winning lucrative contracts from the district.

Harden concedes that he played against Risby in some pickup basketball games eight years ago, but says he never displayed bias in his favor and notes that the contractor, like most others at DISD, was subjected to an extensive bidding process.

Harden denies that he received any kickbacks from Risby and considers Hargrove's testimony that Risby claimed that Harden needed $20,000 to pay for his new house sheer fabrication--a way to connect him with prior press reports that indicated he had suspiciously paid $20,000 in cash to his homebuilder. Harden concedes that in October 1994 he received from a relative $10,000 in cash, which he paid to the builder. But he claims the other $10,000 came in the form of a cashier's check that he withdrew from his credit-union account. Harden provided the Observer with copies of the cashier's check as well as copies of the statements from the credit-union account. The statements show that Harden had the money available in his account at least a month before he wrote a $9,900 check to his homebuilder.

Harden's lawyer, Ron Wells, agrees with his client's assessment that the government has targeted the former district CFO unfairly. He fully expects the Johnson to indict his client, Wells says, "because of the way her attitude has been, and not because I think he deserves it."

Wells condemns the prosecutor's tactics, calling her approach a "clear fishing expedition...It's out of control. I have never seen anything like it. They do not have anything, and they have pursued this guy for months."

The Risby trial was just a dress rehearsal for the government's move against Harden, adds Wells, who contends that Johnson specifically questioned Hargrave about Harden even though Hargrave told the jury his knowledge was only secondhand. Wells speculates that the prosecutor will present Hargrave's sworn statements to the grand jury and try to make a deal with Risby, who is facing substantial prison time, offering him leniency in exchange for his testimony against Harden.

Donya Witherspoon, Risby's lawyer, confirms that Johnson has always pushed for her client's cooperation, and to this day remains willing to offer Risby a better deal if he would help nab former DISD officials. Witherspoon has always assumed the prosecutor meant Harden as well as Michael Henderson, a former associate superintendent whom Hargrave also implicated during his testimony. But Henderson denies that he was involved in any kickbacks and claims he too has been wrongfully targeted by prosecutors. "We felt it all along," says Henderson. "The real focus is Matthew and myself. It's so obvious." Still, Witherspoon admits that Johnson "has never really named [either Harden or Henderson]."

For Risby to turn government witness, he would have to admit his guilt, something he has yet to do, even after his conviction. According to his lawyer, he has not even decided whether he wants to appeal the verdict, and theoretically, he could cooperate with prosecutors, even after he begins to serve his sentence. Judge Sanders has scheduled a hearing to determine Risby's punishment on November 17.

Johnson bristles when told about Wells' opinion of her tactics, but at the same time, she is cautious with her response. "I'm being real careful about what I say," Johnson explains, "because I think there has been so much speculation. I'm, of course, not in a position to speculate. I never made a public statement about anyone being a target in this investigation, but now there has been public testimony that implicates Harden. How can you expect, when you have a witness testify under oath implicating someone, for us not to investigate? I call it doing my job."

Johnson concedes that some may think her probe is proceeding slowly, but then adds, "From my perspective, we are on a fast track." She notes the DISD investigation began only in March 1997, and has so far led to 15 convictions.

For Matthew Harden, that's not good enough. "Oh come on," he says, "How long does it take? It took me a long time to earn, and I mean, earn, a credible reputation. It's just not right to have your name..." His voice trails off for a moment. "Your name, that's all you have is your name."

With enough money from his DISD settlement to make a fresh start somewhere else, Harden has made no such plans. Instead, he intends to remain in Dallas and has started looking into new employment opportunities, including getting into the business of franchising.

"I've been here for 21 years, and I intend to stay," Harden says, "I'm going to get my name clear, no matter how long it takes.