The press has pretty much nailed Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, among others in the FBI investigation. So what’s taking so long?
Because the press isn’t the FBI, and news reports aren’t a federal case. The Dallas FBI investigation is enormous and growing. The case involves politicians and city officials, developers and contractors, nonprofits and private companies. Getting at the truth has taken wiretaps, physical surveillance, search warrants, records subpoenas. We’re talking a lot of material: computer hard drives, undercover video and audio, and vanloads of personal financial and business records. Every bit of it has to be analyzed—not just enough to write a news story.
Sounds time consuming.
Oh, it is. One subpoena in August alone produced 50,000 records from City Hall. The agents were only halfway through it by Thanksgiving. In a high-profile public corruption case like this, every damning fact has to be corroborated and then re-corroborated, even with conversations picked up in wiretaps. And did we mention there are only about a half-dozen field agents dedicated to the case full time? They have support specialists helping them, but just when the agents think they might have it wrapped up, a new witness, a scrap of paper, a request from a prosecutor—or a press report—can send them back into the field.
Still, it has been seven months since the City Hall raids. Don’t they care that this thing is hanging over everyone’s heads?
The short answer: nope. Actually, the FBI started working on this 18 months prior to the raids, so the investigation is more than two years old. Remember, FBI agents don’t face reelection, and federal prosecutors answer to people in the nation’s capital with little political interest in Dallas, so the feds couldn’t care less what the townies think about their progress. Why do you think they left the DISD investigation open for four years, loping along until then superintendent Mike Moses begged a closure letter so he could call a bond election? The feds follow their own agendas and timetables.
How soon, then, before we see some indictments?
Tough to tell. Agents in the FBI’s Dallas office work somewhat under U.S. Attorney Richard Roper’s team of prosecutors. Theirs is a rarified universe. The lawyers evaluate the quality and quantity of the FBI’s work. Then they judge whether the agents need to go out and get something else. As an investigation matures, more and more time is consumed in this confidential interplay between prosecutors and agents. What the prosecutors are working toward is getting evidence of "probable cause" before the grand jury to win criminal indictments. But, problem is, the grand jury only meets once a month, and it hears lots of cases besides this one. That means the prosecutors can present their evidence and witnesses only in dribs and drabs. And—let’s not forget this—since the investigation became public, the pressure is on big-time for it to succeed, because most of the targets are black. A failure to indict anyone, or a loss in court with a hurried case, would provoke national accusations of racism. It could ruin careers and embarrass the Bush Administration.
Really. Three Dallas civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, have already expressed concerns in a meeting with the FBI’s special agent in charge, Guadalupe Gonzales. Another group, activist Lee Alcorn’s Coalition for the Advancement of Civil Rights, has filed a complaint to investigate the bureau for racism. That means Washington is watching Dallas, which means Roper and Gonzales have their people crossing every "t," dotting every "i." Don’t expect them to take any shortcuts.
Any chance this whole thing is just a fishing expedition?
Doubtful. This investigation—a wiretap sting operation involving coached informants wearing FBI recording devices and packing bureau-supplied bribe money—requires high approval from the offices of FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Furthermore, wiretap applications require the FBI to convince a federal judge that probable cause of an ongoing crime exists. It is highly unlikely the FBI jumped through all of these approval hoops without persuasive evidence of hanky-panky. Our guess is that 2006 will be an interesting year at the Earle Cabell federal courthouse.
So this year? Can you promise something will happen?
No promises. The decision whether to nail someone—or everyone—is in the hands of U.S. Attorney Roper, although his boss, Attorney General Gonzales, can always nix a move. Three factors show why the investigation could drag out DISD-style.
1. Statutes of limitation. The main crimes at issue—bribery, extortion, money laundering—carry five-year statutes of limitation that begin the day a crime was committed. Most of the alleged crimes under investigation revolve around an affordable housing boom that began in 2003 and was red-hot through 2004. The FBI worked a sting on associates of Don Hill’s as recently as spring 2005. So statutes of limitation aren’t going to force the feds to rush.
2. Grand jury expiration. Sometimes the feds will pick up the pace if they know the grand jury to which they’ve presented their evidence is to be disbanded. Federal grand jury terms run for 18 months, and they can be extended six months in a pinch. But the feds have plenty of time here: one of the two Dallas grand juries won’t expire until July and can be extended through January 2007; the other expires in January 2007 and could be extended to July of that year.
3. Insufficient evidence. If the quality of all the evidence is insufficient to support indictments at the tougher federal standards, Roper could refer his most promising material to the Dallas County district attorney for state prosecution. The FBI investigation would remain open, set like a trap for any new leads, until statutes of limitation run out. This happened with DISD but most recently with the fake drugs scandal. When a long federal investigation of former Dallas Police officer Mark DeLapaz ended in acquittal, the state picked up the ball and is still running with it several convictions later. Technically, the federal investigation into the fake drugs scandal remains open to this day. The FBI likes to keep its options open for as long as it can.
Good grief. You’re no help. Can’t I just get an over-under on when the first indictment will come down?
April 1, noon. Good a time as any.
Todd Bensman is an investigative producer for CBS Channel 11.