Is Kern Wildenthal a Hero or a Villain? Dallas Morning News Attacks Divide the Community

How do you raise hundreds of millions of dollars for one of the state’s leading public institutions, helping it attain world-class status in the process? Well, you’re unlikely to do it by meeting a wealthy potential donor over coffee at the corner Starbucks, or by asking for a 15-minute chitchat at his or her business office. You meet such donors on their own terms, on their own turf. And the courtship can take years. It might even involve a trip to the opera, say, or a nice bottle of wine. Anyone who finds this fact of life shocking or objectionable or somehow untoward is probably naïve.

That, or they’re a newspaper bent on skewering a community icon.

That seems to have been the situation dogging Dr. Kern Wildenthal, former president of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. As most readers will recall, Wildenthal became the target of a series of articles in The Dallas Morning News examining the travel and entertainment expenses he incurred doing his fundraising job. Initially, the News said its investigating had found more than $700,000 in expenses mainly between 2005 and 2010 that were “poorly documented, had no tangible benefit to UTSW or closely tracked his personal interests, including foreign travel with his wife, opera, and wine.” Wildenthal said the expenses were justified. Still, it looked bad.

So, the UT System hired its own investigator. After he found instances of lax oversight and “questionable judgment,” UTSW and UT System auditors were forced out, and Wildenthal quit two positions with UTSW. Then UTSW hired Grant Thornton, an auditing firm, to review the situation. Its report was deemed to be inadequate, though, so the UT System Audit office did another “special review.”

After at least $660,000 was paid out for all this reviewing, guess what? UT’s final report found that Wildenthal needed to reimburse the system … about $6,100. And, oh yeah, Wildenthal had paid personally for more than $17,000 in business expenses that were actually reimbursable to him. Meaning that, when all was said and done, the system actually owed the former president money, not the other way around.

In a statement, George Rodrigue, the News’ managing editor, said that the Grant Thornton/UT System reviews were “limited in scope,” but that they “fully substantiated our work” regarding Wildenthal’s record-keeping. Added Rodrigue: “We stand by our reporting.”

One suspects, however, that hundreds of people of integrity, influence, and good will in this community won’t be buying that. Many of them took out an ad in the paper calling the final UT report vindication for Wildenthal, adding that the “senseless attacks” against him should end. (The News responded with both an editorial and an “Ask the Editor” column by Rodrigue. And Tim was moved to make a cinematic analogy as a result.) To many of these leaders, Wildenthal is a hero, the victim of a media franchise that’s tied its fortunes to “gotcha” journalism, the fallout be damned.

Should Wildenthal have used better judgment in some instances? Probably, these people say. And I agree. But in a widely shared sentiment, one savvy CEO said the outrageous initial allegations against Wildenthal “didn’t amount to a hill of beans” in the end.

The News does many things well, and no one respects tough, fair reporting more than I do. But Dallas’ only daily also can take on bizarre crusades (see: Gold Metal Recyclers) and never let up.  A recent ad campaign for the paper likened its reporters to bloodhounds on the trail. In Wildenthal’s case, attack dogs was more like it.

A version of this article appears in the April issue of D CEO.