Irving official's text messages cast doubt on strength of Cowboys practice facility

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by By BRANDON FORMBY / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:47 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 11:07 AM

The day after the Dallas Cowboys practice facility collapsed last month, Irving City Manager Tommy Gonzalez referred to the football team as an organization that "pushes" things through and voiced doubts about the structure's quality.

Gonzalez called the facility "a big ole tent" that "probably never was structurally sound enough" to hold up against straight-line winds.

"But it was for 'the cowboys'... that's just what my gut tells me," Gonzalez wrote to Brenda McDonald, the city's real estate and development director.

The statements were among BlackBerry-to-BlackBerry messages city officials sent to each other in the hours and days after the facility collapse. The messages, obtained by The Dallas Morning News through a request under the state's open records law, shed light on how city officials reacted to the collapse and the immediate onslaught of inquiries about its construction and the city's role in permitting the facility.

But they also raise questions about whether America's Team holds undue sway or runs roughshod over city officials, a sentiment that has simmered among some residents for years.

Team owner Jerry Jones declined to take questions from a reporter Tuesday.

"I don't have time for this, I'm sorry," he said when reached by telephone.

A Cowboys spokesman said the organization would not comment.

In a message to city staffers the morning after the collapse, Gonzalez said the city would probably receive inquiries about the city's permit process and the structure's soundness.

McDonald told Gonzalez she would look into whether proper permitting and inspection procedures were followed.

"I am sure it was - and also know how the D org pushes things thru - thx," Gonzalez wrote back.

"We experienced that 'push' this spring on a stairway up to the new temporary observation booth that they constructed in Valley Ranch," McDonald responded. "It is a model of the suites at the new stadium."

But when asked about the messages Tuesday, Gonzalez and McDonald said they were not insinuating that the Cowboys pressure city employees.

"Any organization we work with always wants to make sure that they can get their projects accomplished," Gonzalez said.

The city manager said the Cowboys receive no special treatment.

"We treat every organization the same, and I was reinforcing that to the staff," he said. "That's as short and simple and succinct as I can put it."

After the collapse

In the hours immediately after the collapse, Gonzalez asked another city official to set up a meeting with Susan Skaggs, a director of civic affairs for the team's new stadium, and John Hickman, the team's marketing and business development director.

"u and i can meet with them on PR standpoint!" he wrote to Teresa Adrian, the city's management operations director.

Gonzalez said the meeting never happened. He said one aim was for the city to get as much information as possible to respond to media questions. He said they also wanted to let the Cowboys know what information they had and were disseminating to reporters.

"I think it's only prudent to let them know, 'Look, this is info we have and we shared with the media,' so that they're familiar with what we've told the media and that's it," Gonzalez said.

Skaggs did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday. Hickman said he could not comment, but added unprompted that he and Gonzalez are "good, personal friends."

The 85-foot-tall practice facility collapsed May 2 when about 70 players, coaches, team support personnel and members of the media were inside. The collapse permanently paralyzed scouting assistant Rich Behm and injured 11 others.

Inquiry continues

The Texas Board of Professional Engineers launched an investigation last month over how Irving handled documents related to the facility. The city's retention of documents came into question after officials said they no longer had on file the records that could have shed light on how the structure was designed and built or which engineers signed off on the structure.

State officials said the city should have kept documents such as blueprints and building specifications. City officials said they do not agree with that assessment.

An investigation by The News last month found that the Cowboys made major structural reinforcements to the facility last year using advice from a man who has falsified his educational credentials and served federal prison time for his role in a violent drug trafficking ring.

The team applied for a permit to redo the roof last year, but did not tell city officials that any structural work was being done. The team never followed up with the city to have the reroofing work inspected.

Cowboys' influence

City Council member Beth Van Duyne said there's been a pervasive perception among residents that the Cowboys and Jones get whatever they want. She has for years said the city and team's Texas Stadium exit agreement too strongly favored the Cowboys. Among other things in that document, city officials agreed not to compete against the $1.15 billion replacement stadium set to open in Arlington this weekend.

"The council may have allowed their adoration of the Cowboys franchise impact their decision," Van Duyne said.

Van Duyne said city staffers take their direction from the council.

"If we're willing to make those kinds of concessions at the council level, that's sending a solid and clear message to staff," she said.

Van Duyne said residents in Valley Ranch believed the Cowboys and city officials were too close. That's one reason, she said, she gained support from north Irving voters when she was first elected to the council in 2004.

But Mayor Herbert Gears said the Cowboys are not given preferential treatment.

"That's not something anybody would admit, but certainly it's not true, either," Gears said. "There's just not that much interaction that I know of between the city and the Cowboys."

Gonzalez said he does not believe city staffers feel pressure from council members to make developers or corporations happy.

"I was not implying anything in that statement other than we need to make sure we follow the rules," Gonzalez said.

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