Publicity Paul

A Harvard Club of Dallas luncheon should be a cozy enough setting for Paul Edward Coggins Jr., Harvard Law '78. But even on this welcoming turf, 39 floors up in the Texas Commerce Tower, a question can fly in the window. Coggins, who for the past four years has been President Clinton's man in the powerful job of U.S. attorney for the Dallas-based Northern District of Texas, had just finished his talk for about 50 Crimson alumni at their January 14 get-together.

Everyone agreed, he was impressive on his subject, "Hot Issues at the Justice Department."

Then a woman popped the question.
"How the heck did Dan Peavy get off?" the impertinent alumna asked as white-coated waiters moved about the walnut-paneled dining room. "I thought he was guilty."

Two months earlier, a jury had acquitted the former Dallas school board member of federal bribery charges. Coggins' prosecutors alleged that Peavy took $459,000 in kickbacks from his friend and partner, insurance agent Eugene Oliver, to help him sell insurance to the Dallas Independent School District.

Coggins was momentarily rattled by the frankness of the woman's question, recalls Dallas lawyer Tom Melsheimer, a Notre Dame grad who nevertheless was in attendance. But Coggins recovered quickly to explain that "paper cases" such as Peavy's, which lacked cooperative witnesses, can be tough to sell to a jury.

"I've stopped second-guessing juries," Coggins went on to say, not so subtly shifting responsibility to the 12 citizens who let Peavy walk.

Although it's hardly fair to judge Coggins' 85-lawyer office by one courtroom loss, the Peavy case has left a particularly sturdy hangover as Coggins hits the midpoint of his term, which presumably will run through the end of Clinton's second term in the White House.

It was as big a political corruption case as Dallas has ever seen--the only one Coggins' office has handled that warranted major headlines. But in the end, Coggins' team lost badly in what some presumed to be a slam-dunk case. And nothing Coggins has said since the not-guilty verdict last November has put an end to speculation that evidence was held back, at least in part, to avoid embarrassment to a Coggins friend, former school board president Sandy Kress.

To make matters worse, within five months after Peavy strolled from the courtroom to a celebratory lunch across the street at Neiman Marcus, prosecutors in the neighboring Eastern District of Texas made nailing dirty Dallas pols look easy.

In the second week of his federal corruption trial in Sherman, Dallas city councilman Paul Fielding pleaded guilty to extortion and mail fraud, admitting he used his influence to force EDS Corp. to hire a client of his for a $1 million janitorial contract in return for his support on a zoning case.

Coggins' high-profile setback in the Peavy case did nothing to discourage critics who say he's been long on self-serving press relations and shorter on results in some much-touted target areas, including an initiative to ferret out health care fraud.

"He's had his ups and downs," concedes former Dallas Democratic Party chairman Ken Molberg, a long-time Coggins political ally.

Politics, or rather the perception of Coggins as a political animal, provides much of the fuel for his detractors, who can't help but notice the campaign-like fashion in which he moves about town. "Paul is the most political of any of the U.S. attorneys I have known. You get the idea he's purely into political advantage--all his news conferences, meetings with community people, political people," says one well-regarded defense lawyer who has practiced law in the area during the terms of five Coggins predecessors.

"He has his finger on the pulse of the office in case he wants to issue a news release," says the lawyer, who, like several others, declined to talk on the record because of concern that his views could hurt his clients.

Coggins' supporters--who in the legal community outnumber his critics--agree he has adopted a high-wire profile, but they say his office has an unblemished record of integrity and fair-mindedness. While these feds might not be setting the courthouse on fire, they're competent, the argument goes. Justice Department statistics show Coggins' office's win-loss record in 1996 was 996 defendants guilty, 9 not guilty, 85 cases dismissed--just above the average for the 93 U.S. attorney's offices around the country.

"Some people think he's publicity-oriented. To me, it's a shallow criticism," says defense lawyer Jay Ethington, who worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the late 1970s. "If he were using that office for political purposes, I'd be the first to bitch. That's not happening."

And even some Coggins detractors are willing to reserve judgment until he crosses the minefield of sensitive matters his office currently has before it. Federal investigations are under way into managers, contractors, consultants, and lower-level employees at DISD; voter fraud in Dallas County; and corruption in the Wilmer-Hutchins school district.