If a former FBI agent now working as an investigator completes a months-long probe of a local unit of government and says in his final report that Larry Duncan, the top elected official and a well-known political figure in the city, may be guilty of bribery, is that not a big stop sign?
The bombshell report, which Duncan and his board fought for months to suppress, involves tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. Sure, the voters recently killed their strange little school bus agency, the Dallas County Schools, in a countywide referendum. But wait. Don’t we still need to know more about the bribery?
Or this? The same report names other elected officials formerly at DCS, at least one of whom is now on the Dallas City Council. The report says City Council member Omar Narvaez and the others “… may be exposed to allegations of a conspiracy. This may also be Program Fraud.”
Don’t we need to have that fleshed out a bit before we rush on to other business? Bribery. Conspiracy. Fraud. Those are bad things. Right?
I’m not saying the findings have gone unnoticed. Intrepid reporters and producers at KXAS-TV (NBC 5) have reported on the investigation. They’re the only reason there was a report. KXAS had battered the weird little money-pockets so-called school district for a year with a series of exposés that could have fueled an entire reality TV show plus a crime podcast from NPR.
The school district bowed to pressure and commissioned former FBI agent Dennis Brady to do a study of its finances. When they got a look at what Brady found, DCS spent God only knows how much taxpayer money fighting the release of his report, even unsuccessfully suing the Texas attorney general after the AG said it was public information. That’s about a step and a half short of calling for a constitutional convention to make bribery legal.
The report calls for a closer look at Duncan, a former member of the Dallas City Council, “for receiving what could be construed as a bribe related to campaign contributions provided by individuals associated with Force Multiplier Solutions (a contractor) and the related quid pro quo regarding actions taken by DCS under his guidance.”
The report says about Duncan: “Documents recovered in the digital media indicate that Larry Duncan is opposed to Ethics Rules for Public Officials proposed by the State of Texas. In the same document, Larry Duncan also objects to public disclosure requirements likely intended to prevent potential conflicts of interest for public officials. These rules might ensure that the public is aware of any such potential conflicts of interest.
“These documents may be significant because they speak to the state of mind of Larry Duncan. A prosecutor may view them as relevant to the specific intent to commit the crimes discussed in this report.”
OK, it’s a report by a private investigator, not a law enforcement report, and even a law enforcement report saying the same things would be only an accusation. Duncan and others named in the report are entitled to a legal presumption of innocence until some court finds them guilty of something.
But in the meantime, as elected officials who have enjoyed the public trust, they also are entitled to some intense public scrutiny. The report singles out six more elected members of the DCS board of trustees. It says Duncan passed on to them some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he received as campaign contributions from people associated with a dodgy contract. The contract was so bad it wound up turning the entire so-called school district belly-up.
Problem: The people Duncan selected for his generosity included more or less the entire budget and finance committee — the people most responsible for asking questions about the dodgy contract. Those former board members — Paul Freeman, James Hubener, Gloria Levario, Narvaez, Kyle Renard and C.W. Whitaker — are the ones the report suggests could be guilty of conspiracy and fraud.
One of them, Narvaez, is now on the City Council. This is an unfortunate stain for Narvaez so early in a career. He swept into office last May with the support of voters who saw him as a clean alternative to a sold-out incumbent. I can’t help hoping he will find a way to wipe this clean, too, mainly by coming clean about everything he knows concerning DCS.
I tried to reach Duncan, Narvaez and the rest of them yesterday but did not hear back.
The so-called Dallas County school district — it had no schools, only buses hired out to real school districts — is going away. In a countywide referendum Nov. 7, Dallas County voters voted to kill it.
The Brady report finally was made public because DCS finally got a new CEO, Alan King. King, former chief of staff and acting superintendent at the Dallas Independent (real) School District, is a straight-shooter with no fear of controversy and a constitutional disdain for liars. His job is to settle the DCS debts and then put the whole thing 6 feet under. He handed out the report last week to anybody who asked for it.
At last count, both the FBI and the Texas Rangers were looking at DCS, so if there are criminal charges to be levied, that’s where they will originate.
But let’s not try to do the entire trial here. Let’s trust the law enforcement system to sort out the legal questions. Separate from those questions, we all should have some important political and social questions to which we need answers.
What did this agency think its mission was? What was the culture? Why, for example, in the midst of this calamitous contract fail, was the chief executive officer of the agency maintaining a large apartment in the French Quarter in New Orleans adjoining a large apartment rented by the CEO of the company with the dodgy contract?
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How does the superintendent of a small so-called school district live on equally lavish terms and cheek-by-cheek with an entrepreneur with whom his district is doing business, badly? And why? Who thinks like that? Why wouldn’t a school superintendent say, “Oh, no, I’m a school superintendent and a public servant. I can’t have a lavish entertainment suite in New Orleans next to a guy involved in the loss of tens of millions of dollars in public funds by my district.”
And what about Duncan? He not only does not say no thanks to a quarter-million bucks in campaign money from the guy with the dodgy contract, but in what looks like being too clever by half, he salts the money around to the very board members who could raise questions. Talk about leaving an audit trail. A bad audit trail.
And for Narvaez and the others, much as it pains me to say this: Even being offered the Duncan money in the midst of all that mess should have raised red flags for all of them. But taking the money and then failing get to the bottom of the dodgy contact raises a stink.
Getting rid of the agency does not get rid of the stink. The people are still around, some of them in even more influential positions. No matter what law enforcement decides, we voters need to decide politically what this was and still is.