Cat Eyes' last meow | Dallas Observer

Cat Eyes' last meow

A teacher put it best in The Dallas Morning News: There's the real Dallas Independent School District--where kids go to school and learn how to read, write, and do arithmetic--and there's the surreal district.

No doubt about which one has gotten the most media coverage during the last several days.

It's the surreal district, of course, that place where the married superintendent was accused of writing sexy cards and notes to a top administrator and attaching a tracking device to his car. It's a place that's still roiling with allegations, investigations, and litigation.

Matthew Harden Jr., the Dallas public schools' chief financial officer, made the tantalizing missives public this Monday when he included the cards and letters in a lawsuit against DISD superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez and other top administrators. Harden attached the correspondence as evidence to support his allegation that Gonzalez had made "perpetual personal overtures and demands" on him.

In his suit, filed in state district court, Harden alleged that Gonzalez had not only pursued him romantically against his wishes, but that she also tried--after he rejected her overtures--to railroad him into resigning, and placed a tracking device on his car. Harden also alleged that Gonzalez conspired with DISD administrators Robert Hinkle and Robby Collins to ruin the careers of other DISD employees they knew to be honest.

Just four days after Harden filed his lawsuit, as this issue of the Dallas Observer was going to press, Gonzalez tearfully announced her resignation as superintendent at a Tuesday night press conference. She denied all of the allegations in Harden's lawsuit, and said that she had never sexually harassed him.

Responding to the news, rookie trustee Ron Price said, "Justice must prevail. If she was innocent, she wouldn't have resigned."

Soon after the resignation, Harden issued a written statement: "With the actions taken tonight, I am gratified that a major step has been made toward resolving these matters [in the lawsuit]. The past several months, and especially the past few days, has [sic] been a time of great personal turmoil.

"The issues involved are both sensitive and complex," the statement continued. "I regret the disruption this may have caused in the day-to-day management of the district, but ultimately I know I did the right thing by coming forward. I now hope we can return to a focus on educating the children of Dallas, and the business of running this school district."

A spokeswoman at Bickel & Brewer, the law firm representing Harden, said Gonzalez had agreed to resign in exchange for Harden dropping his lawsuit. As part of the settlement, Harden had also agreed not to release any more information regarding his allegations against Gonzalez.

The image of Gonzalez--the smiling, charismatic Hispanic leader who'd received much praise for her courageous stand against a small group of militant black leaders--scrawling mash notes to a subordinate, and then stooping to plant a tracker on his car when he failed to respond favorably to her advances, had sickened the city.

Earlier on the day that Gonzalez resigned, at least five DISD trustees--Hollis Brashear, John Dodd, Yvonne Ewell, Jose Plata, and Ron Price--had told reporters that they were prepared to suspend the superintendent during a scheduled Wednesday afternoon executive session. Votes from five of the nine trustees would have constituted a majority.

"We can't get to the bottom of this if she is still controlling the investigation," said Brashear, the board's first vice president. "We need to put the investigation under direct control of the board."

Said Price: "It's impossible for [Gonzalez] to be a role model now. All kids of all races are being damaged by this. The school district is the laughingstock of the country. Kids are making jokes about this."

Harden's lawsuit, filed on September 12, capped a trouble-filled week for the DISD superintendent.

On September 10, the Observer had published a cover story ("See Yvonne run from the truth") that detailed the superintendent's numerous misstatements and misrepresentations and revealed that Gonzalez may have been involved in placing a tracking device on Harden's car. Gonzalez declined to speak to the Observer for that story.

Shortly after he discovered the tracking device under the bumper of his car in mid-August, Harden filed a separate lawsuit against Dennis Hazlewood, the private eye who'd been under contract to physically attach the small device, which emits radio signals, to the administrator's Mercedes. Harden used the lawsuit as a tool to discover who had paid Hazlewood for use of the monitoring device.

Harden and his attorney, Bill Brewer, say they found out last week who ordered the tracker to be placed on Harden's car. Hazlewood had testified in a deposition that he'd been hired by Security Information Services, the agency Gonzalez had contracted with to handle DISD security matters. Hazlewood stated that he understood from SIS officials that Gonzalez had sought to have the tracker placed on Harden's car, and that he'd been paid $930 in cash so no record of the transaction would exist.

That apparently gave Harden enough ammunition to file his lawsuit against Gonzalez the next day.

Gonzalez reacted swiftly to Harden's lawsuit. Although she did not explicitly deny any of the allegations, she told news reporters last Friday that she would unveil a new fraud investigation on Monday, implying that it would address some of the allegations Harden had raised.

But when Monday rolled around, Gonzalez offered no such revelations. Instead, she appeared to be in hiding. By mid-afternoon, befuddled workers in the DISD press office were told to refer all queries to Gonzalez's new lawyer, Dan Hartsfield, with the firm Baker & Botts. Hartsfield failed to return telephone calls for this story, but did speak to television reporters through a speakerphone, telling them that the superintendent would vigorously defend herself. She would not try her case in the press, he added.

"We are not going to conduct ourselves in the same manner as our opponents," Hartsfield told the Morning News. "We will not hold press conferences and make public arguments as to the facts on the claims that he has asserted. We intend to try this case in the courthouse, not in the media. We believe that acting in any other manner would not be in the best interest of the district."

This, of course, was a surprisingly different stance for Gonzalez, who's had no trouble holding press conferences to announce demotions or indictments of her subordinates, sometimes before the employees have even been notified of the news themselves.

Meanwhile, Harden's lawyers kept busy on Monday. They filed an amended complaint and included the cards and letters supposedly written by Gonzalez.

"Harden: What did you think of the information I whispered into your ear this morning?" reads one handwritten note that Harden claims Gonzalez passed to him after an important meeting. "Surprised? Don't leave tonight without us touching base--if I lose sight of you--either I'll page you or you can page me [sic] You will find me wildly unpredictable in a personal sense--fairly predictable in a professional sense so don't be surprised if I catch you 'off guard' may even get to like it!"

Another card, mimicking a refrain from an imaginary blues song, proclaimed: "I've got those mean ol' low down, wall climbin', nail-bitin', teeth-gnashin', heartbreakin', mind-bendin', tear-jerkin', Lord I-miss-you-gotta-have-your-body blues!" Below the printed text was a handwritten message, signed "Cat Eyes," that told the recipient, "see you Friday so save up your energy." Another card read: "How about a little one-on-one?" It went on in a handwritten message, "Miss you a whole bunch...Keep smiling till I get back to make you really laugh!"

Although the tantalizing language in the correspondence made the headlines, Harden also included some evidence in his amended complaint to support a less provocative but far more troubling allegation. Harden claimed that Gonzalez and a cabal of DISD administrators had worked to dismiss and demote dozens of DISD employees, mostly African-Americans, without cause and without due process, and had publicly defamed them.

Harden's filing included what he claimed was a transcript of a taped conversation between himself and DISD administrator Robert Payton that supposedly reflected Gonzalez's motives. In the transcript, Payton tells Harden that he had told Gonzalez they needed to reinstate DISD executive director of athletics Robert Thomas (known as Rabbit), who'd been suspended several months earlier. Payton tells Harden that his proposal had been rebuffed by Gonzalez with these words: "No, we need to find something on him--y'all find something."

"I don't have anything on Rabbit," Payton complains to Harden. "Hell, I don't have anything."

That DISD news now centers on such lurid matters troubles almost everyone in the district.

"Everything that has come out has been about I, I, I, and me, me, me," says rookie board member John Dodd, who was an outspoken critic of Gonzalez even before the latest revelations. "We need to make sure that people understand schools are going to stay open. I'm concerned that we don't have anyone in charge.