What is That Awful Smell Coming off the Pages of The Dallas Morning News Today?

Wow. What a bunch of junk in the The Dallas Morning News this morning about Rene Martinez, The LeMaster Group and Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles. The whole school reform story in Dallas just gets more weird with every passing day.

But should that surprise us? Remember: Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price has been using softball interviews with friendly reporters to call for Miles' firing since last October, when Miles got rid of long-term school executive Shirley Ison-Newsome, a Price protégé of many years.

Remember this, too: An all-African-American community group started picketing Miles' home after a few popular black school principals got "non-renewed," which means sacked.

In other words, the Dallas school chief given the mission of radical reform when he came to town a year ago sits every day atop of a kind of political/racial volcano. The volcano is always venting and spewing random odd smokes and bad smells. But that doesn't mean Miles is the one making the smells.

So today we have the latest installment in the very odd smokes and smells department -- a story in The Dallas Morning News making it sound as if Miles is under some kind of quasi-criminal investigation for using school district funds to hire a sock-puppet phony-ass defender who's really a hired hack for a public relations firm. The headline is, "Investigators, hired to review actions of Dallas ISD Superintendent Mike Miles, question Hispanic leader."

Sounds kind of bad or not good or fishy-wishy or something, eh? But if you read into the story, you find that the two by-lined reporters, Tawnell D. Hobbs and Matthew Haag, were not able to confirm any of the story's basic thesis. Zip. Why is this story even in the paper?

In order to have any story at all to put in the paper, Haag and Hobbs needed to confirm that Rene Martinez, North Texas director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, was on the payroll of The LeMaster Group, a media-relations consulting company that has sometimes advised Miles.

I have been aware of this story coming down the pipe for the last week, because I sort of keep track of stuff like this. So I have known for some days that Hobbs and Haag have gone back and back to both Martinez and The LeMaster Group to ask and re-ask if Martinez was ever on LeMaster's payroll. The answer has been no, no and still no.

The story in today's paper reports that Martinez, who used to work for the school district, was originally critical or at least a skeptical of the new superintendent: "Hispanic leader Rene Martinez was once a vocal critic of Dallas ISD Superintendent Mike Miles. Early this year, he became one of Miles' fiercest supporters."

Then the story links that turn-around to an investigation: "And now, he's been drawn into an investigation by Paul Coggins, who was hired by the school board to look into Miles' handling of a contract award."

So what does that suggest? It suggests broadly that Martinez turned on a dime because he was getting paid to be a mouthpiece for Miles. Then the story suggests Martinez's role has now been swept into an ongoing external investigation of contracting improprieties by former U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins.

Holy shit. I know all about that. Yeah, Martinez was critical of Miles at first. Miles fired him. Well, he didn't personally fire Martinez. In the early stages of the reform effort, Martinez's position, which had to do with parent involvement and community engagement, was eliminated. He was out of a job.

And, yes, Martinez did turn around subsequently to support Miles. I was talking to him all during that period. You know what really turned him around? It was the fact that some of the school principals targeted for replacement under the reform were popular Hispanics.

OK, wait, wait, say that again. Martinez, with a lifelong career in Hispanic activism behind him, was glad that Miles was targeting Hispanics for replacement?

No, not exactly. I could tell he felt terrible about some of the individuals and wanted to defend them. But the fact that Miles was going after principals on an equal-opportunity-son-of-a-bitch basis, effectively targeting them without keeping a racial scorecard, told Martinez that Miles was the real deal, a guy who was really about the kids and education.

Martinez is a person who knows where all the bones are buried at the school district. He knows the history -- the good, the bad and the ugly of it. His reaction to Miles was the exact opposite of Commissioner Price's. Price basically took the position that if Miles touched any of Price's friends, Miles had to go.

Even though the principal replacement program was painful for some of Martinez's friends, Martinez's reaction to it was to see Miles as a real-deal straight-shooter. The other thing is this: The turn-around on Miles was not merely personal or unique to Rene Martinez.

Hispanic leadership in Dallas generally turned around to favor Miles after a meeting last January. Speaking to a broad array of Hispanic leaders, Miles told them in frank terms that he intended to go after the system of political patronage that had kept the school system mired in failure for a half-century or more. Miles warned them that changes would be painful and that some of the targeted principals would be Hispanic.

The reaction of the group, according to people who were present, was to say, "How can we help you?"

The opposite of the Price reaction, in other words. The contrary. There's the real story. That's what Tawnell Hobbs and Matthew Haag need to be writing about, not this penny-ante, back-corridor bullshit where they can't even make their own case.

Hobbs and Haag are two really solid reporters with great track records on stories from a news beat that's sort of a reporter's nightmare. The schools beat in this town is an unforgiving minefield and graveyard.

But today's story is a terrible piece of work. The linking of the Coggins investigation is especially smelly. Martinez has told me, as he has told Hobbs, Haag and WFAA's Brett Shipp, that he doesn't know why Coggins' people called him in to talk.

He says he spoke to them for an hour about contracting and politics. At one point he says they asked him if he ever worked for the LeMaster group. He said no. That was it.

But Martinez is a guy who would naturally be consulted on anything like this. He has been a mover and shaker in some of the city's most fundamental political chapters over time. Three years ago when the News' Gromer Jeffers wrote a history of the "14-1" single-member city council movement in 1991, he painted it as an almost entirely black phenomenon, but in fact Latinos were an important element in the struggle to break white-only rule in Dallas. Rene Martinez was prominent among those leaders.

Since then, he has worked for the school system, where he learned the ins-and-outs of the system's contracting procedures. Coggins is investigating contracting procedures. Martinez is such an obvious resource, Coggins would have failed his due diligence by not talking to him. For the News to slime Martinez for agreeing to talk to Coggins, absent a scintilla of evidence that Martinez was personally suspect, is inexcusable. It's difficult even to understand.

Look, I can tell you exactly what the newsroom test is for a story like this. Pretend I'm their assistant city editor at the News. OK, my two reporters, you want me to publish a story for you saying Mike Miles is using school district money to run a sock-puppet astro-turf personal political support operation and Rene Martinez is the paid puppet?

Show me the money. No, don't talk. Don't explain. Just show me the money. If you can't show me the money tying Martinez to The LeMaster Group to Miles, then you do not have a story to put in my newspaper. If you can't show me the money but you and I put a story in the paper anyway, then you and I are suggesting to readers that there was money somewhere. And that suggestion would make you and me liars.

It's worse than a lie, in fact, because it so completely misconstrues what's really going on in the bigger picture. It perpetrates the false accusations purveyed by Commissioner Price seeking to protect the old patronage system.

I'm baffled. Really. I am not feigning my respect for Hobbs and Haag. It's real. But this story today is junk, one big weird plume of smoke and bad smells. I can't figure out how it even got in the paper. But I predict an even worse one from Shipp at Channel 8 soon, maybe tonight.

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