Arena stonewalling

Louise and Philip Elam spent the first Valentine's Day of their 10-month-old marriage poring over yet another daily newspaper story that made their hearts sink.

But, friends say, they spent their first Valentine's Day not at a restaurant, nor with wine and flowers--as newly wedded couples like the Elams usually do--but picking over Philip's rosemary chicken with a mutual promise to celebrate the holiday when, and if, the nightmare at Dallas City Hall ever ends.

It has been more than three months now since Louise Elam, a pretty, intensely private 40-year-old woman with a soft heart and a stellar record as an architect for the city of Dallas Public Works department, went from being one of the city's hardest-working, most unassuming employees to its biggest, most highly publicized scapegoat.

It happened on November 16, when, to Elam's shock and horror, City Manager John Ware and his top staff went into a closed-door meeting with the Dallas city council and blamed her--and her alone--for initiating and paying for a secret $50,000 sports arena study that a records request from the Dallas Observer had just unearthed.

Elam and 15 other city employees--none of whom were in the meeting that day--knew better. They knew that their bosses in the city manager's office were the real culprits. And that rather than admit their own impropriety, they had chosen instead to scapegoat someone underneath them.

Only a few council members were smart enough to sense that Ware and two of his top deputies were lying--and only Paul Fielding was gutsy enough to do something about it. Fielding knew that on its face, the city manager's story was preposterous. He knew that a mid-level employee of the Public Works department could never pull off such a stunt on her own--even if she had some bizarre, inexplicable desire to do so.

Fielding immediately called for City Auditor Dan Paul to conduct a formal investigation into the secret study--to find out who really launched it, who authorized it, and who made the decision to keep its existence secret from the city council.

Paul's conclusions, released two weeks ago, were predictable--at least for nine of those employees who had told the true story to the Observer back in November: the number-two person at City Hall, First Assistant City Manager Cliff Keheley, had authorized the secret study, authorized the use of outside paid consultants, and had insisted that staff not tell the council about it.

Sitting at home two weeks ago, holding Paul's audit report, Elam felt some hope. The truth, as she and others knew it, had finally been released in a form that council members and the city manager's office could not ignore.

But Elam's relief was short-lived. Because the following evening, Keheley issued a two-page written statement blasting Paul's findings, defending his own actions, and insisting that he had done absolutely nothing wrong--that he had never authorized the paid study. "I deeply resent the inept and unprofessional assault on my honesty and integrity represented by Mr. Paul's report," Keheley declared in his statement. "Throughout a career dedicated to public service and being fully knowledgeable of the requirements of such a career, I have always accepted responsibility for my actions, including any mistakes."

Not this time.
Unwilling to take responsibility for his actions--as he had privately promised subordinates he would do last November if the secret study ever became public--Keheley chose instead to take the most cowardly route possible: he blamed Elam, the lowest-ranking, most defenseless person on the secret-study team. (Keheley himself declined comment for this story.)

Even after Paul had documented Keheley's true role, daily newspaper and TV reporters, in all too typical superficial fashion, nonetheless accepted Keheley's defense--and his completely baseless criticisms of Paul--at face value. The Morning News printed them on Valentine's morning, along with a priceless comment from Mayor Steve Bartlett, who declared: "I think Cliff's getting a raw deal. It's born in the seamiest sort of politics. I sincerely regret the way it's been handled by some council members and the auditor's report."

Reporters never bothered to pick apart Keheley's lame statement. They never bothered to independently verify the conclusions in Paul's audit. And they virtually ignored the real victim of this mess, Louise Elam. Though the city manager had previously issued a statement acknowledging that she was, in fact, blameless, to this day she has yet to receive a call or letter of apology from Ware, Keheley, or any member of the council. And she still does not know what in the world it's going to take to get the truth out.

"I just feel like it's never going to end," Elam says. "Dan Paul clears me in his audit, and Cliff says it's all false. And by Cliff denying it--denying authorizing the study--doesn't it still cast a suspicion on me? Even though Dan Paul said I didn't do anything wrong, doesn't it make people wonder?

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Laura Miller