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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.

17 comments on “Is Kern Wildenthal a Hero or a Villain? Dallas Morning News Attacks Divide the Community

  1. There’s a lot of parsing of words and Kern’s deeds here, Glenn. We all know that the medical community is a very important advertiser to D Magazine, but you are wrong to defend Kern’s actions just like your employer was wrong to defend DMN’s Parkland stories.

  2. Glenn, did you actually READ any of the FACTS contained in the DMN’s coverage of this ongoing scandal?

    Without a doubt, Wildenthal has done all sorts of great things for the community, building up a great roster of connections with the rich, famous and powerful along the way.

    A read of the DMN’s coverage reveals that no audit of Wildenthal’s expenses has EVER been completed by ANYONE. Instead, potential auditors have been paid to review his expenses with the equivalent of one (or both) hands tied behind their backs. He has, to this date, NEVER offered up substantiation for his expenses in the manner required by law.

    Again, Wildenthal has done a lot of great things for this community. He may also be a liar, a thief and a tax cheat, if one is to judge by the unrefuted facts.

  3. “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.”

    – With all due respect to the “savvy (and anonymous) CEO,” I would put much more stock in an on-the-record quote from one of either:

    1) a partner in a national accounting firm; or

    2) a recognized expert in not-for-profit governance.

  4. wildenthal is no different than Lance Armstrong, who also tried to hide behind raising millions for charity while doing things that truly make them villains.

    The UTS audit is invalid because Paul Hastings implicated them in covering up Wildenthal’s crimes for years. This cause its chief audit exec Carles Chaffin to resign in disgrace.

    UT Chancellor Francisco Cogarroa should redo another audit because the UTS audit is tainted.

  5. You GO, Wylie! Excellent commentary on the facts!~ D Magazine has clearly caved to the medical centers advertising dollars! Wildenthal HAS done great things for the medical center – – AND he has also lied, cheated and stolen it’s funds for his own enjoyment!

  6. Wow, this article is just fantasy! Mr. Hunter, you got even the UT System’s white,wash report all wrong.

    Wildenthal isn’t owed menu as you claim, even by UTS’s dubious findings. They said Wildenthal owes $24,000,of which Wildenthal claims to have paid $17,000 in donations (if even that is to be believed) to UTSW. That leaves Wildenthal OWING $6100.

    However, no one buys that UT System should have done the follow-up audit because they were implicated in the previous cover-up. They fired their chief, Charles Chaffin, over the flap. Also, Wildenthal can’t justify paying a,maid’s workers chomp who injured herself cleaning his daughter’s house. That’s just ridiculous.

  7. Glenn, as the managing editor of The News, I feel compelled to correct the record. From my perspective, your “hero versus villain” theme is unfounded and misguided. It is unfounded because we never ignored the heroic efforts Dr. Wildenthal made on behalf of UTSW (they shared top billing in our original report on his spending) and we never portrayed Dr. Wildenthal as a villain. We merely raised questions about his spending and documentation.

    Your theme is misguided because it implies that people must be either heroes or villains, and real life just isn’t that simple.

    You also seem to argue that people who do heroic things can never be questioned about any other aspect of their performance — even if the person in question is a highly paid state employee.

    This wasn’t “gotcha” journalism, it was an accounting story. It was a painstakingly accurate report based on years of research (necessitated by the difficulty of getting and analyzing the appropriate documents) and supported by a panel of high-quality experts from around the nation.

    You imply that we were bent on skewering Dr. Wildenthal. The allegation is senseless, unsupported, and false. I believe that anyone who reads our report can see that. I appreciate your linking to our Ask the Editor column. I encourage anyone who wants a fuller and fairer understanding of the situation to read that column, and the original Sunday package (not “series of articles”) that contained our findings.

  8. The title of this article should be: “Can D-Magazine report the facts correctly?” No one is claiming that UTSW owes Kern Wildenthal $6,100. It’s the opposite. He OWES $6,100.

    This is just an embarrassing rehash of the DMN story which got the facts wrong.

    Also, why would chancellor Cigarroa use his tainted auditors who were implicated in the past with covering up Wildenthal’s wild undocumented spending spres? The follow up audit has no credibility.

  9. From the comments so far, it doesn’t look like the community is divided at all. Nobody, except for Wildenthal’s good buddies, UTSW, and this paid-off rag seem to support Wildenthal’s prior swindling of a charity to enhance his own lifestyle.

    Clearly, this rag should have disclosed any conflicts-of-interests with ad money coming from UTSW or any of Wildenthal’s friends before launching an unfounded attack on DMN. After all, UT’s only independent investigative report on the matter, from Paul Hastings LLP, severely condemned the disgraced chartiy swindler for doing a lot of wrongdoing and also condemned both UT System and UTSW auditors for covering up Wildenthal’s crimes.

    Grant Thornton LLP was clearly shackled in what they could do in the follow-up audit by UTSW, and they distanced themselves from that report saying that “in no way were the services performed representative of an audit.”

    This sounds like another cover-up with D-Magazine playing along with the white-washing at the urgings of UTSW. Does D-Magazine need the ad money that badly that they’d compromise their journalistic integrity this badly?

  10. Nice reporting to the “executive editor” of D-CEO, Glenn Hunter. (Is anyone not an incompetent editor at D and just an accurate reporter with some integrity at that rag?)

    Not only did you get the facts wrong on a story that was already published weeks ago in the Dallas Morning News, claiming Kern Wildenthal is owed money by UTSW, but D-Magazine failed to disclosed a big potential conflict-of-interest that UTSW was a big advertiser for D-Magazine who likely influenced the story to happen.

    Nothing says “Lack of Journalistic Integrity” more than selling out a editorial opinion to the highest bidder and recycling old stories published weeks after true journalists in this town cover it first.

    To D-Magazine: a rag that doesn’t uncover anything important that happens in Dallas on its own, but rides on the coat-tails of the city’s leading newspaper, The Dallas Morning News. Keep hiding your conflict-of-interests guys! I’m sure some idiots in this town won’t notice.

  11. You’re an idiot. You consider bunch of comments here as the “community.” Half the comments probably made by the same user under a different pseudonym.

  12. Please explain how D-Magazine could mis-report that they think UTSW owes Kern Wildenthal money when clearly even the corrupt UT System auditors say that Wildenthal still owes for restitution?

    Also why didn’t D disclose a potential conflict of interest in writing this story while having UTSW as an advertiser? This totally lacks any journalistic integrity.