Let me offer a disclaimer at the top. Part of what I am about to tell you here about the investigation of Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles is tea-leaf-reading. I happen to think I'm pretty good at reading the tea in this area. But tea leaves are tea leaves.
Some of what I am about to say does come from sources close to the investigation. None of it comes from Miles, who has not spoken to me since some weeks before all of this started.
My two best sources of tea are Matthew Haag at The Dallas Morning News and Brett Shipp at WFAA-Channel 8, neither of whom has spoken to me about the Miles investigation. Haag did call me and leave a message at the end of last week when I was deep in deadline with my own work. I have not returned his call. I'm thinking about it.
So, the tea: Haag and Shipp are working a story that came out of a closed-door executive session of the school board last Thursday. Former U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins, now a private lawyer, was hired last month for $100,000 to investigate allegations that Superintendent Miles had illegally influenced a school district contracting matter, charges which I have characterized here as bullshit. Last Friday's supposedly secret meeting -- secret by state law -- was for the board to receive Coggins' report.
He didn't find jack. Of course he didn't find jack. The accusations against Miles came out of a shoddy half-assed investigation by an internal school district department that operates as a political secret police for certain school board members, mainly the old-style patronage hacks fighting tooth-and-nail against the program of district-wide reform that Miles is leading. Coggins got zip on Miles.
How do I know that? Because I know from the questions that Haag and Shipp are asking people and the stories they have done about the secret meeting. It's a violation of state law, by the way, for anybody in that meeting to blab, but it happens all the time. They're both good reporters. They got somebody to blab. I didn't. I'm jealous.
How do I know the person or persons doing the blabbing told them that Coggins came up with zilch on Miles? Because Haag and Shipp are not asking anybody anything about Miles. They're asking about me.
What? Me? Like, Yours Truly? Yeah. It's a tangled web. Sorry. I'll do my best here.
Maybe you remember that the News and Channel 8 have made a great deal out of the issue of turnover in Miles' top staff, suggesting broadly that there must be something wrong with Miles or why would so many of his top people be leaving? For months and months I kept hearing on the back channels that most of the departures had nothing to do with Miles. They were leaving because the school board was driving them nuts.
Some of that was anti-reform politics. But another issue for staff, I was told, was simply that some of the board members are nuts, and, by the way, I'm not a doctor, so I am not using the term, nuts, here to convey a diagnosis. I use it in the broadest most colloquial sense to mean ... you know ... nuts.
In particular, school trustee Elizabeth Jones, I was told, was despised for subjecting staff to long-winded belittling interrogations peppered with McKinsey and Co. consultant-lingo jibberish (she worked for McKinsey at some point), little of which ever added up to a question that any human being could ever understand. Jones did not appear to be a partisan on the reform issue, I was told. Rather, she was just a bully using her post on the school board to mete out all the punishment she never got to give anybody in her private sector career.
On June 20 another top Miles staffer quit -- Chief of Operations Kevin Smelker. I was able to get Smelker to talk to me about why he was leaving. He gave me his reasons, and in that conversation he referred to a letter of resignation in which he had laid out those reasons. My understanding of the way the letter was delivered to Miles caused me to believe the letter was public. It was. I got a copy.
Smelker didn't name Jones in his letter, but other references in the letter made it clear he was talking about her. The ultimate reason he left was obviously that she was driving him nuts, and, you know, life's too short. OK, I'm getting to the Yours Truly part.
Haag has been writing stories in which he says, "Smelker's letter struck some district officials as odd and out of character." But what does that even mean? Odd and out of character? What odd? What character?
The "odd and out of character" line is really an accusation that Smelker did not write his own letter of resignation, that it was written by a public relations consultant, Lisa LeMaster, at the behest of Miles, to be planted on me in a campaign to defame Elizabeth Jones. Hey. Hey. Watch it now. Do not call me nuts about this. Yes, this is nuts, but I am not the nut. Not this time.
Let me cut to the chase here a little bit. I was just pulling into the parking lot at Sam's Club Friday evening in hopes of expanding my wardrobe, when my phone rang. It was Smelker, calling me from Colorado. He knew about Haag's stories and may also have seen or heard about Shipp's piece accusing him of odd and out of character letter-writing. And let me tell you. He was smokin'!
I didn't take notes, but I do recall this line very clearly, because he repeated it several times: "I WROTE THAT LETTER!" He said he did show it to LeMaster, who basically toned it down, because "I wanted to make my point without being hurtful." But he said the letter was not odd, was not out of character and expressed exactly what he felt when he wrote it.
I already knew that was the case, because I had talked to him for an hour soon after he resigned. Some of that chat was on the record and some was off. But it was very clear to me that the letter was a watered-down version of his true feelings, especially where Jones was concerned. In the call last Friday, he said if anybody wants to hear the unvarnished pre-Lisa-LeMaster version of how he feels, he's got that one all loaded up and ready to fire.
So Haag's message to me Friday was this: "I'm calling to talk to you because you are going to be included in a story for tomorrow about Miles' apparent campaign with Lisa LeMaster to embarrass Elizabeth Jones in the news media, and you had a column about her in July, and I wanted to talk to you about that."
I did not call back, and I was not included in Haag's story the next day, confirming my own belief, which I intend to use if I ever go into the media-relations consulting business, that the best policy is just not to talk to the bastards.
I am told that Coggins or his people may actually call me about this. I am hoping that will happen, because such a call would contribute to the greater glory and importance of moi, but also because talking to them would be a great chance for me to do some more tea-leaf reading, all of which I will happily convey to you as soon as I get it.
But, look, if this is what Paul Coggins is up to now -- trying to find out why somebody wrote a mean letter about Elizabeth Jones -- it's pretty damn piss-poor use of $100,000, is it not? Smelker wrote the letter. Ask him about it. But be sure to ask him how he really feels about Jones.
How did I get the letter? It was public. That's more than I can say for whoever is spilling the beans to Haag and Shipp about what went on in that meeting. That wasn't public. Them beans are illegal. Hats off to Haag and Shipp for getting their hands on those beans, but wouldn't Mr. Coggins be better off using his hundred large to find out who spilled the beans from his own secret meeting?
Let's just noodle that one around a little. Now who was in that meeting who would be really jacked out of shape about a mean letter about Elizabeth Jones? Hmm. A mean letter about Elizabeth Jones. Hmm. It was about Elizabeth Jones. Who would care about that? Nope, sorry, can't figure it out. Just not in the tea leaves for me, I guess.
We have now come to this absolutely wretched and miserable point: Now the News and Channel 8 have all kinds of credibility, or incredibility as the case may be, invested in the idea that the Coggins investigation is going to find out that Miles did something wrong. Coggins will probably toss his client some face-saving cover by coming up with some kind of petty bureaucratic red-tape mistake that Miles made on the contracting deal. But he's not going to come up with anything real.
How do I know that? Because somebody is talking to Haag and Shipp about Coggins's report to the board last week. And they're talking about me. I don't want to put myself down or anything here, but if there had been one ounce of red meat in that meeting, Matthew Haag would not be calling Jim Schutze about "Miles' apparent campaign with Lisa LeMaster to embarrass Elizabeth Jones in the news media."
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What is all of this really? It's a feeding frenzy. If nobody can put a fire hose to it and make it stop, it will wind up with the ouster of Miles and the collapse of the school reform effort in Dallas. If Miles goes, it won't even be a straight-up outcome of the war between reformers and the patronage hacks. It will also have this big overlay of sheer crazy-ass dysfunction.
This a simple picture. The white folks and the upwardly mobile minorities ditched out of the school system 30 years ago. They left behind a Tammany hall patronage machine with a $1.7 billion annual budget. Miles is threatening to shut down the job-fair at Tammany Hall. Tammy Hall is fighting back.
Tammany needs to kick up enough dust to give one or two of the uncommitted board members political cover to vote to fire Miles. They hoped the Coggins investigation would do it. It will not. So now they have dialed down to the ... what? The Jim Schutze investigation? Oh, that's weak, man. That is some very weak-ass damn tea if I do say so myself. I will let you know, Dear Reader, as soon as I get another cupful.
I may put that on my tombstone. Name. Years of life. Then, "Odd and out of character." Worse things have been said.