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Publicity Paul

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If there's a hook that Coggins would like to wriggle off most, it's the acquittals in the Peavy case--that rich motherlode of a political corruption scandal that landed on his office's doorstep in 1995. That summer, WFAA-Channel 8 reporter Robert Riggs broadcast a series of stories alleging that school board trustee Dan Peavy used his position to line his own pockets while negotiating insurance contracts for the district. Coggins' office, which learned of the matter through Riggs' reports, launched an investigation through the FBI and indicted Peavy last year on 42 federal counts of bribery, conspiracy, and money laundering. His insurance agent friend, Eugene Oliver, was indicted as well.

Included in the government's evidence were 60 hours of tapes that a Peavy neighbor had intercepted with a police scanner, tapes that prosecutors said in pre-trial hearings contained discussions of financial arrangements between Peavy and Oliver.

The illegally intercepted conversations, which included Peavy muttering racial slurs and foul language, were sealed from public view after former school board president Sandy Kress secretly intervened in the case.

Peavy's defense attorney, Tom Mills, asked U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis to bar the tapes from the trial, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil Umphres, who led the trial team, won a ruling that he could still use the tapes to impeach the defendants.

Umphres put on a detailed case that traced the flow of 90 payments from Oliver to Peavy, highlighting repeated occasions where Peavy lied about receiving money. On the defense side, Mills acknowledged the payments, but argued that they were advances on future insurance business that Peavy was to bring Oliver outside the school district.

The tapes were never played during Umphres' surprisingly brief 30-minute cross-examination of Peavy. A few days later, the jury acquitted Peavy and Oliver of all counts.

"I was surprised not to see the tapes," says Mills now, adding that he thought Coggins' team was "overconfident" and "cocky."

Frank Jackson, the lawyer who represented the neighbor who taped Peavy, says the decision not to play the recordings could have been decisive. "I've listened to 17 hours of tapes, and they put a lot of things in context," he says. "There's a lot in there that would have pissed the jury off."

Jackson also was a little stunned to see the defense being permitted to put on a case that said, in effect, that despite all the money changing hands, the school system was getting good deals on insurance. "A good, creative prosecutor knows how to keep that kind of stuff out," Jackson says.

Following the trial--and further revelations about Kress being caught talking about manipulating the board to blunt the power of its African-American members--speculation in media and political circles has centered on the theory that Coggins must have been shielding Kress, a close friend, former law partner, and Democratic insider.

"I can't put that to rest," Coggins says. "I can say this. I picked the trial team, and it's their job to make the hard calls. They made the calls on using the tapes.

"I would have made the same call, probably."
For one, he says, the defense would have been given a major point to appeal if illegally wiretapped material was presented at trial. "Secondly, a lot of what's on those tapes has no relevance to what we were trying," he says.

And the parts that were relevant?
"The question with the tapes was, 'Did their probative value outweigh the danger of having the case reversed on appeal?' I thought the trial team made the right call on that."

The saga of the tapes continues today. Coggins sent them to the Justice Department's civil rights division earlier this year for lawyers to review whether any of the tapes captured conversations of Anglo school trustees violating the rights of African-Americans on the board.

Coggins says he didn't handle that matter in-house for a number of reasons. "I thought it would be a good idea that people unconnected with the case take a look at the tapes for two, no, three reasons," he says. "First, we had just lost the Peavy case. Two, I had had a longstanding friendship with Sandy Kress, and I didn't want...well, that friendship played a determining role. Third, it made good sense to have Washington look at it because in most civil rights cases, one of the people on the team is from the civil rights division."

Coggins declines to say whether his office is directing an investigation of Dallas city councilman Al Lipscomb, who was linked to dirty dealings at City Hall in the Paul Fielding trial. But he acknowledges that his office has jurisdiction to do so. Prosecutors in the Beaumont-based Eastern District handled the Fielding case when Coggins recused himself because of a conflict of interest. Coggins' former firm, Meadows, Owens, at one point represented Fielding and his business partner, Sam Feldman, who pleaded guilty to mail fraud last summer.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec