When we sat down over yesterday with The Dallas Morning News' mammoth front-page "exclusive" in which three reporters "found thousands of suspect purchases on district credit cards--and serious questions about whether anyone is watching how the tax dollars are spent," well, we thought two things to ourselves: Wow, that sucks. And, wow, that story looks very, very familiar. Fact is, we actually thought of doing this very same story a year ago--not because we're that smart, but because on May 26 of last year, Dallas Independent School District watchdog Allen Gwinn had much the same information, which he dug up all by his lonesome and put on his invaluable Web site, Dallas.org. And in August 2005, Gwinn even created a searchable database in which he shared his research to anyone who wanted it--say, reporters looking for a story. Wanna know how much James Colbert from L.G. Pinkston spent at Fry's Electronics and Best Buy on January 25 and 26 last year (close to $4,000)? Gwinn's got it right here. Stunned to find that Dee Anne Egan at George Peabody Elementary School managed to rack up $115,385.18 in charges on her district procurement card in 2004 and 2005? That's all Gwinn, baby. And how outraged were you Sunday to read about Gloria Orapello, the secretary who accrued $383,788 worth of charges over a two-year period, with $100,000 of that coming from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. Wait for it...wait for it...yeah, Gwinn had that too.
By no means am I saying Kent Fischer, Tawnell Hobbs and Molly Motley--the three News writers sharing credit on the pieces that ran yesterday and today--used Gwinn's research and then failed to acknowledge his work; I have no doubt they did their own research, as theirs goes further than Gwinn's initial study, which covered only 2004 and 2005, while the News goes into spring 2006. But he should be recognized for acknowleding the problem first--and the fact is we passed on this story last year because Gwinn had done all the legwork (and armwork and headwork) a good year ago, and anyone else coming after him would just be following in his estimable footsteps. The guy's database isn't complete--you can't see what people bought, only where they made their charges and how much they spent and even on which day of the week the purchases were made--but he had the same figure as The News ($20 million in charges) more than a year before the local paper of record. For that research, not to mention Gwinn's efforts concerning the fraudulent claims made by DISD school board member Ron Price and former school board president Lois Parrott, the man deserves more than to have his work appropriated without at least a nod of gratitude.
But the most amazing thing is, Gwinn doesn't mind. At all. "More people read The Dallas Morning News or Dallas Observer than read Dallas.org," he told Unfair Park this afternoon. "Over time, a whole lot of people may read it on my Web site but in the short run, when you need something done it's better to have it out in the print publications because your circulation's better than mine. And they got something to happen in print I never could on the Web: They're calling an emergency school board meeting to discuss the future or procurement cards. This is the kind of thing that can make a difference. You gotta get a handle on this. I had a board member ask me off the record, 'What can we do to avoid all of this stuff?' and my response was, 'Open everything up. Put everything online. Be proactive.' If I were in charge of this, every single charge would be online with a comment and explanation so people could search it. Rather than finding an employe who spent $383,000 in undocumented charges, you could have someone [at the district] go, 'What was she doing buying couches at Carswell? Let's ask her.' And then you wouldn't have all these sensational news stories."
The guy's so amazingly unselfish about the story on his Web site yesterday he amended his August 14 introduction to the procurement card database to now read as follows: "According to a Dallas Morning News Investigative Report there is very little oversight with respect to how these cards are used." Ironic a story about credit cards has us asking for a guy to be given a little, ya know, credit. --Robert Wilonsky
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