Longform

Publicity Paul

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Sure it looked bad, Coggins told the Post. But at least the strippers weren't paid with Sunbelt funds.

Coggins, who aspires after hours to be the next Mickey Spillane, tried capturing some of those high-flying, 380SL excesses in a pulp fiction paperback, The Lady is a Tiger, which was published by Avon in 1987.

These days, he says, all he hears about the out-of-print book are jibes from U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer, who likes taunting him with recitations of the racy parts. Page 132, no doubt: "At first she was content to slowly gyrate her hips. A hum idled on her lips. Before long, though, her buttocks hammered like restless pistons..." The metaphors get even clumsier as the story goes on.

Coggins, who writes early in the morning and on planes, says he is 300 pages into another book, which agent Jan Miller is shopping to publishers. Again in the crime fiction genre, it involves anti-government groups in Texas and a woman U.S. attorney as its protagonist, Miller says. Government rules say he can't make a dime on it, she adds.

Through the 1980s, Coggins and his wife worked overtime in various civic and Democratic party organizations, and Coggins served as Dan Morales' Dallas County finance chair during his successful campaign for Texas Attorney General in 1990.

Morales, in his first year in office, appointed Coggins as a special assistant, retaining him at $200 an hour to represent the state in a lawsuit over treatment of the mentally retarded, as well as several other matters.

While Coggins was hard-wiring himself into Austin, his wife was hooking up with even more ambitious types in Little Rock. At a meeting of the board of Wellesley College, Montoya met fellow trustee Hillary Clinton, wife of the then-Arkansas governor.

The two couples became friends, and in 1992 Coggins co-chaired Clinton's North Texas campaign. "People complained that he [Coggins] hadn't paid his dues, but Paul's not an envelope-stuffer," says Molberg. "Publicity and fundraising were the things he has done for years. Working at the top. He does that very well."

After the inauguration, Coggins and Montoya were rewarded nicely for their trouble. She went to Washington as a White House staff member but resigned her job as assistant to the President for governmental relations after only seven months. There were complaints from unnamed "high-ranking Democrats" about her lack of experience and allies, but she insisted she wanted to return home to be with her husband and her daughter, Jessica, now 10.

Coggins balked at taking a job in the Justice Department, he says, and opted instead for the U.S. attorney post in Dallas.

Four years later, some of the most reasoned criticism of Coggins' performance comes from Charles Blau, a colleague from his old firm who likes Coggins. Blau's chief complaint is that he expected more. "Paul has taken a very conservative approach, with very conservative judgment," he says. "He hasn't shaken things up very much."

Several of Coggins' assistants say he's tinkered with the office's decision-making process, asserting more centralized control. Day-to-day matters such as when a case should be dropped or agreements to reduce sentences of cooperating defendants must now be reviewed by in-house groups or supervisors.

In all, it's not exactly a high-testosterone shop, several of Coggins' lawyers say. "You can pretty much rise or fall to your level of ambition and find a place," says one assistant, adding that Coggins is not a withering, to-the-woodshed sort of boss.

In terms of policy, Washington dictates some of a U.S. attorney's agenda, but he or she has room to set priorities too. Coggins has followed Reno's lead in making health care fraud--schemes to bilk Medicare or Medicaid--a stated priority, and with much stagecraft announced formation of a local task force in 1995.

But Blau, who has a lot of company on this point among defense lawyers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, says Coggins' task force has been picking off four-employee diet clinics while studies show there are much larger targets to hit. "They're moving at a snail's pace," complains Blau, a former assistant U.S. attorney who ran an anti-money-laundering task force in Miami and served as an associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan years. "I've had some collegial discussions with Paul, and he gives me the statistics, and I tell him, 'The quality of the cases needs to improve.'"

Coggins' most significant health care fraud cases to date have arisen from a Texas Senate and nationwide probe into National Medical Enterprises Inc., which pleaded guilty in Washington three years ago to various fraud charges and paid a record $370 million in fines and restitution. The company changed its name to Tenet Healthcare in 1995.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec