Anatomy of a smear

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During Page's first week on the job, the lawyer who was training her handed her a traffic ticket and told her to find the officer who wrote it. The patrol cop, Jim Page, told her he remembered the ticket, but he wanted to know something else. "He asked me, 'Are you married?' When I told him I wasn't, he said, 'Wanna get married?' I thought I might have scared him off when I told him maybe we needed to go on a date first." They made a lunch date at Spaghetti Warehouse and started going out, and when Robin told her they were engaged, her mother was delighted a Dallas cop was joining her family.

Page worked the city courts for less than a year before moving up to a job as legal advisor to the S.A.F.E. team in 1993. Her duties there included going out with the team on inspections -- to provide on-the-spot advice in the face of complaints by landlords' lawyers -- preparing cases for prosecution (other lawyers would be the lead prosecutor in court), and attempting to work some of the bigger bugs out of the highly bureaucratic system of nailing code violators. She pushed to designate a specialized court for repeat code violators -- the special ordinance court -- so the S.A.F.E. team's dozens of violations against a single defendant could be tried in batches. She also helped set up a standard set of complaints that would withstand legal challenges and designed a system to move S.A.F.E. team tickets through the courts.

Some of those refinements came as a result of the very able legal defenses put up by lawyers for landlords such as the Topletzes.

Page wrote three separate memos -- two in 1996 and one in 1997 -- to code inspectors or cops in the unit about the importance of researching a building's legal ownership before opening a case and writing tickets, then giving notice at the owner's correct address. The last memo, written in November 1997, came as a direct result of problems with about 23 tickets issued to the Topletzes that Page and another prosecutor say they had no choice but to dismiss.

"They didn't send out notices; they just wrote them tickets. So we couldn't prove they had notice of the violations," Page recalls. "The inspectors knew we were going to dismiss those cases eventually. They [the Topletzes and their attorney] kept getting them reset, and we tried to negotiate some kind of plea, but they don't plea out."

In the usual run of business, rank-and-file inspectors and police investigators were kept abreast of cases. "We got their advice on pleas. They knew what cases were getting dismissed and why," Page says. "There wasn't anything secret going on."

The S.A.F.E. team, which eventually grew to 30 people, brought together three different city departments -- code enforcement, the cops, and city attorneys -- and coordination among the three was frequently difficult, Page recalls.

Janet Dill Stewart, the special-ordinance-court prosecutor who worked closely with Page, remembers that the S.A.F.E. team had a high turnover rate, "and with everybody changing all the time, you were telling them these things over and over." Stewart, who prosecuted cases against major slumlords for three years before she moved to Oklahoma in 1998, wrote her own multi-page instructional memo to the S.A.F.E. team in August 1997.

All officers in the unit were required to sign a ledger stating they received Page's November 1997 memo, she says. But the cops never passed it on to the code inspectors -- the people actually writing the tickets. "I had to hand it out," says Page. Her step-by-step, three-page list of instructions later was incorporated into the training document for all new code inspectors.

From the time Page joined the city attorney's office, she had eyed the job of legal liaison -- advising police on the details of the law -- and she finally landed it late last year, after a two-month stint as Stewart's replacement in the special ordinance court. Page had just begun teaching classes to new recruits at the Dallas Police Academy when the S.A.F.E. team's blundered cases began haunting her.

Lt. Tammy Ellzey, who had taken over S.A.F.E. after Page had left, began demanding explanations for various dismissed tickets. Many concerned cases that had been investigated three or four years before but had only recently been disposed of in the courts because of court backlogs and defense attorneys' delaying tactics.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec