OK, enough about you, let's talk about me for a change. I had the very weird experience last week of covering a Dallas school board meeting where a lot of the story I was covering seemed to be about ... well, you know ... me. Yours truly. It was sooo embarrassing.
And, yes, you guessed it. Indeed, I did sort of love it. I am, after all, a newspaper columnist. I'm in the hey-look-at-me-look-at-me business. Put me on an elementary school playground during recess anywhere in this nation, and I could identify all the future newspaper columnists for you.
But, really now, this is getting ridiculous. I think I need to make a statement. Here goes.
The Dallas school board met at the end of last week to hear some more about an investigative report into the doings of school Superintendent Mike Miles. Some of the board, maybe as many as half of them, want to fire him. The other half don't.
Originally the half who want to sack him were hoping to catch him breaking the law and "bullying" a woman — not a legal term exactly, but it sounds kind of like beating her up. They had their hands on a report from this little mini-KGB department within the school district saying Miles probably did all that stuff. But the other half didn't trust the report.
So the board voted to hire former U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins to do an external review of the internal report. When Coggins looked at it, all of the serious charges in the mini-KGB report went up in smoke. Like the bullying thing. The woman who was bullied according to the internal report told Coggins she never said that. If that's true, then the authors of the mini-KGB report made it up.
It's an especially suspect point, because bullying is a specific term the anti-Miles crowd — especially the teachers unions — had been tossing around already for months before the internal report picked it up. Some teachers say Miles is bullying them because he sends people to their classrooms to observe them and offer tips all the time.
A few weeks ago when the anti-Miles set on the board found out that the Coggins report was not going to uphold any of the substantive charges in the mini-KGB report, they met with Coggins and asked him to look into a new matter, now known as "The Smelker Letter." Do you think that would make a good title for a Robert Ludlum novel? No, I didn't think so.
It involves me because I am supposed to be the first person to break the story of The Smelker Letter. I was not. More on that later, because it sort of takes the spotlight off me a little, which is not where I'm trying to go at the moment.
Kevin Smelker was chief of operations for the district. He quit a month ago. He called me and told me he was quitting because the school board was driving him crazy. He said he felt unsafe appearing before the board without a lawyer. He told me that the string of top-level executives under Miles who had resigned over the last year all felt that way.
He said the story put out by the anti-Miles crowd — that they were quitting because they didn't like Miles — was absolute bullshit. He said the get-Miles half of the board was running them off.
He was very passionate about it. I got the feeling there was a kind of pressure-cooker tension within the top staff because the true story wasn't getting out. Most of the people who were leaving were afraid to criticize the school board, because then they'd have a tough time finding new jobs in their field. Smelker told me he was retiring — done with the whole business and not looking for another job — and he was by God going to tell the truth on his way out the door.
He did not come across as slick or tricky at all. He came across as a sincere guy who wanted his story told right. Believe it or not, we get a lot of that at the Dallas Observer.
Here's a key point: For whatever reason, Smelker delivered his resignation letter saying many of these same things to Miles via school district email. That made it legally a public document. By law The Smelker Letter was a public document the instant it hit Miles' school district mailbox.
After I had written my first piece about Smelker's departure but before I wrote the second one, I obtained a copy of the letter. Had the letter not been a public document and had I obtained it against the wishes of its author or recipient, then theoretically I could have been hauled into some kind of court, civil or criminal depending on the matter, and ordered by a judge to say where I got it.
But it's a public document. I am supposed to have it. It belongs to me. I'm a public. That letter in my possession is like a 20 dollar bill in my pocket. Unless you've got good reason to believe I stole it, it's none of your business how it got into my pocket. It's my damn 20 dollar bill, and it's my damn business how I got it.
I think — this is sheer speculation — that Coggins knew the clients who had just paid him $100,000 for his investigation were going to look like idiots and fools if he left them with nothing at all for their money. Maybe that thought never entered Coggins' head, but when the board first heard the original charges had gone up in smoke and they ordered him to investigate The Smelker Letter, he did so with gusto.
The big discussion at the tail end of the board meeting last week — with Coggins choir-directing the anti-Miles half of the board like back-row baritones — was all about his evidence or lack thereof to show that Miles had anything to do with my getting the letter.
Never mind that Eric Celeste, then writing for Culture Map, broke the Smelker resignation story a week before I wrote about it. Never mind that I first wrote about Smelker and the board without the letter in my hand. Never mind that Smelker has insisted on more than one occasion that the letter said exactly what he wanted it to say. Never mind that Coggins' own investigation produced not one scintilla of smoking-gun evidence to show Miles had anything to do with my getting the letter.
Coggins nevertheless told the board last week that if they suspected Miles had something to do with my getting the letter, that would be grounds to fire him.
And I'm sitting out there in the peanut gallery listening to all this, taking notes and running my recording machine like all the other reporters, and I just about can't stand it. I want to get up and ask Coggins a question. In a rare exercise of anti-narcissistic self-restraint I managed to restrain myself at the last minute, but now I would like to pose my question for you here. Pretend you are Coggins and the anti-Miles people on the school board. Here is what I would say to you:
What the fuck.
Ladies and gentlemen. Coggins proposes that you fire the superintendent if you think he had anything to do with my obtaining The Smelker Letter. Smelker swears he wrote the letter. He swears it said what he wanted to say. So I am left to assume that Coggins would have you fire the superintendent strictly over the question of my having obtained the letter.
The letter was by law a public document. The law requires the school district to give me the letter. It is against the law for the school district to hide the letter from me. There are civil penalties and even criminal penalties for public officials who deliberately thwart the state's public information laws, which guarantee me access to that letter.
The entire theory of Coggins' advice to you is based on an assumption that the school superintendent or somebody else at school headquarters should have broken the law in order to help you board members avoid embarrassment. I find that deeply troubling, coming from a former federal prosecutor, almost as if he believes that circling the wagons and protecting politicians from embarrassment is more important than the law itself.
I find it pretty troubling that all of you, who are sworn by your oaths of office to uphold the law, can sit up there at that stupid dais all night and chew on this issue and never once ask Coggins or yourselves or a school district lawyer what the law is on the release of the letter.
Just to make sure you know, the law is that the letter was supposed to be released. It had to be released. There was no legal basis for not releasing it. Hiding it from me would have been a violation of the law.
So who gave it to me? Coggins told the board that based on his years of experience in the Justice Department he was certain the reporter in question, me, would never say who gave him the letter. Well, let me parse that same point from a slightly different perspective.
The reporter in question, me, knows the law. I know that I have no right whatsoever to defy a judge who wants to know how I got my hands on secret information. But I also know that Coggins, back when he was federal prosecutor, had no right, nor does any judge now, to put me through the ringer over how I got a public document. Because it's public. I am a proud member of the great American public. It's my damn business how I got The Smelker Letter, which I actually think would be a great title for a movie about me.
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