So there I was a couple of months ago, digging into phone records showing a local lawyer's chattiness with several Fort Worth school board members while his firm was competing for the district's coveted delinquent tax collection contract.
Then, the first week of May, two of those board members filed amended campaign finance reports that were a year late in disclosing that same lawyer had contributed to their 2010 election efforts.
Trustees Ann Sutherland and Tobi Jackson reported that Mario Perez of the Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson firm had underwritten robocalls for their campaigns in May 2010: $171.37 for Sutherland and $144.53 for Jackson.
The amounts were small enough that they might have looked like minor oversights. But Jackson's report included this eye-popper: A $4,200 "loan" from Perez dated May 10, 2010.
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How was that much money overlooked for a year?
Within three days, Jackson filed another amendment with a detailed explanation. Bottom line: There was no loan; she had paid her debts; and she neither knew about nor consented to Mario Perez paying a Pennsylvania-based company for calls made for her campaign.
Her report, now available online at www.fwisd.org/boe, includes a narrative of the events and an itemized statement from her campaign consultant, Austin-based Murphy Turner & Associates, showing her account was paid in full and no expenses were covered by Perez.
So, what happened?
Jackson told me she initially declared a loan because Perez contacted her in late April of this year and said she had to report the money quickly or risk being accused of an ethics violation. He was an adviser to her campaign and became a friend; their daughters play together and she trusted him.
After researching her records and talking with Murphy Turner staff, Jackson said, she documented that Perez never paid the firm anything on her behalf and she hadn't known what he was up to.
Perez told me he paid the calling company, Painter Communications, in June 2010 because owner Denise Painter was a friend who hadn't been paid immediately after the election. He said she reimbursed him after receiving funds Jackson sent Murphy Turner.
Perez said Jackson didn't know he had intervened and that "No monies from me were ever paid to her."
If he never actually gave Jackson any money, why did his e-mail answers to my questions keep referring to the money as a "loan/expenditure"?
He also said he consulted his wife, Azzah, before transferring $4,000 from their joint savings to Painter.
But Azzah Perez told me she wasn't consulted about the payment and didn't approve it. She also said she hadn't agreed to any campaign donations.
(Mario Perez filed for divorce in April, and a settlement agreement was reached in May after mediation, court records show.)
Jackson's records largely support the trustee's explanation.
The paperwork Mario Perez gave Jackson to back up his version contains many inconsistencies. For instance, he told me he sent Painter $4,000, but her reimbursements to him total more than $4,200. A final check from Murphy Turner to Painter on Jackson's behalf is dated April 27, but Painter told Jackson in an e-mail that she'd been paid May 31.
The whole business is convoluted. Perez's answers to my questions don't clarify things.
I wonder whether this is simply a case of an amateurish political operative and sloppy paperwork -- or something that merits more scrutiny.
I wonder because of the way Perez and Fort Worth school board members Carlos Vasquez, Juan Rangel and Sutherland manipulated the process of awarding the district's tax collection contract to Linebarger, where Perez works.
After the May 2010 elections reconstituted the school board, Linebarger muscled out Perdue, Brackett, Flores, Utt and Burns Joint Venture, which had done the district's tax collecting for 17 years.
As I wrote in a Sunday column, Perez was phoning and texting with Vasquez, Rangel, Sutherland and Jackson during a three-month no-lobbying period before the board voted on the contract. And Perez fed questions to Vasquez, Rangel and Sutherland to ask during the board meeting at which lawyers for the firms presented their proposals.
Vasquez, Rangel, Sutherland, Jackson and Trustees T.A. Sims and Judy Needham approved the switch to Linebarger. Three board members dissented.
The evidence is strong that Vasquez, Rangel and Sutherland discussed the contract with Perez before the vote. Jackson said she deliberately didn't talk with him about it and made up her mind after studying the proposals.
For years, competition for tax collection work from cities, counties and school districts has involved political maneuvering. In late 2009, the Arlington district switched to Linebarger from Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins & Mott, which was part of the joint venture handling the Fort Worth schools' contract at that time. Vasquez used that to launch the effort to get Fort Worth trustees to follow suit.
Both Linebarger and Perdue have donated to candidates, including for the Fort Worth and Arlington school boards, presumably in hopes of making a good impression.
But the $4,000 being moved around in Jackson's campaign doesn't make sense. If she didn't know anything about Perez doing it until this spring -- and nothing proves otherwise -- then it didn't influence the vote. If Perez was just trying to help, why not ask her before acting? If it wasn't a loan, why tell Jackson to report it as one? If it was merely a straightforward gesture by him, why the discrepancies and intrigue?
Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.