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A True Story
Bombshell in the Barrio Author John F. Tanner Traces Personal Journey from Diverse Upbringing, to Successful Career in Education, to the day he was Indicted by the FBI
In the years leading up to 2010, a group of El Paso educators had succeeded in their mission to improve education, test scores, and college admission statistics at the historically neglected public high school where they worked. However, this feat would not only go on to be questioned and challenged by state government, but four educators and from the school and a district assistant superintendent would go on to be investigated by the FBI.
Bombshell in the Barrio was written by John F. Tanner with help from two of the other five educators involved – Mark Tegmeyer and James Anderson. It details the terrifying power of the oligarchical elite of El Paso, lays out credible, shocking, and difficult truths about the US Justice System, and acknowledges the crucial strength of a united community.
I spoke with John F. Tanner, who was the principal of Austin High School at the time.
Tell us a little bit about your background and your previous career.
I am a native son of El Paso and the last child born to Clarence Tanner and Marjory Martinez-Tanner, 98 years after the end of the Civil War and a year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. My early years, culturally, were working/lower middle class with a heavy influence of Mexican and Irish culture whereby I attended diverse public schools and was reared in an observant Roman Catholic home. Beginning in August, 1981, I left El Paso and journeyed through college at Texas Christian University (TCU), worked in the defense industry for a year, attended Catholic seminary (Notre Dame) and earned an MDiv degree (at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley), left seminary and returned home to El Paso in January 1992. Eventually I entered the field of education at an all-boys Catholic school, Cathedral, in 1993 as a theology instructor. There I met my wife, Jai, an English teacher. By 1997, I had entered the public schools and made a plan to become high school principal and perhaps even a superintendent.
My plan included getting a doctorate in educational leadership (Ed. D) at the University of Texas at El Paso (2006). By August 2008, I achieved my goal of becoming a high school principal at Austin High School in El Paso. Austin was a school in need of attention both academically and from a morale perspective. They were amazing students who didn't know they were amazing. I was able to implement my goal for education in the El Paso area. That is, my goal was to ensure that all students, regardless of race or income, would be accepted to and have the opportunity to attend a 4-year university by the time of graduation. The year before I was principal of Austin, not even 10% of the graduates met that criteria. At the end of my 5th year, 92% of the graduating class had met that criteria. Austin, with challenging demographics from a financial perspective, was getting students into MIT, UT, Emory, Amherst, West Point, TCU, Baylor and scads of other schools. We were on fire and doing great things; I saw myself as the principal for the rest of my career. A fake cheating scandal and an amoral senator ended the dream. I loved (and still love) that school and community.
Can you briefly trace the key moments in your career that led to you and four other educators being investigated by the FBI?
1. June 25, 2010: I attended the press conference of then-Texas Senator Eliot Shapleigh, who was making a false claim that Austin High School had cheated to get out of academic trouble set by the mandates of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Shapleigh said he would have proof of his allegations. He didn't. He said he would have Austin personnel and parents to verify his allegations. He didn't. Not even one. I introduced myself to the press and said, "I am the principal of Austin High School and I am here to answer to any and all allegations of cheating." My forthrightness resulted in a target being put on my back by Shapleigh and his supporters.
2. After the Texas Education Agency and the US Dept of Education had cleared the El Paso Independent School District of Shapleigh's allegations, Shapleigh used his clout to get the FBI to investigate EPISD beginning in December 2010. After almost two years of investigation, the superintendent was found to have misappropriated some education funds, but no cheating was discovered. So, two El Paso City Council members demanded that EPISD hire an auditing firm to search for cheating in the district. The firm chosen, The Weaver Group, was headed by a close ally Eliot Shapleigh, Adam Jones. This firm, with their inaccurate forensic audit, claimed to find malfeasance in the district. I was one of 35 EPISD employees cited in the report. We were not allowed to read the report until it was published in The El Paso Times. That report resulted in 8 school administrators being recommended for termination at an EPISD Board meeting set for April 2, 2013.
3. The April 2 Board meeting did not go as planned by those who wanted to allege a cheating scandal on the district. My Austin community came out to support me in a manner reminiscent of George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life." That is not an exaggeration. The Board meeting lasted for over four hours and around 74 people spoke on my behalf. This included students, parents, teachers and community members. They were poor, rich, and middle class. They were a diverse group of people. Most spoke English as others spoke only Spanish. They were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Atheist. What was supposed to be a Board meeting that quickly terminated 8 administrators turned into an inquiry towards those making charges of cheating. By the end of the night, the Board reinstated 7 of the 8 administrators recommended for termination. I was one of those reinstated. And I became a news sensation in the city. That was not appreciated by the FBI or Shapleigh.
4. After the reinstatement, I was targeted anew by the FBI for retaliation of two teachers on my campus who were supposedly FBI informants. Spoiler alert: This was the charge that actually led to the indictment but was the charge that was first dropped--with prejudice--because of prosecutorial and FBI misconduct. To try and prove this allegation, the FBI intimidated three of my assistant principals: Mark Tegmeyer, Nancy Love, and Diane Thomas. When they would not lie to frame me, the FBI then targeted them. The FBI pressured them from June 2013 until all of us were indicted on April 20, 2016, a week before we were perp-walked through the streets of downtown El Paso.
What was the reaction of your community, when you were charged?
The Austin High Community supported all of us. Very few from our school and community ever doubted our innocence. And very few of them were ever interviewed by the media. They held rallies and prayer vigils for us. But the media of El Paso had established, without any proof (and that isn't an exaggeration), that a cheating scandal had occurred. They had changed the former main stars of the "scandal" and now had replaced them with us. Many of those who didn't know us tended to believe the 700+ articles in the El Paso Times and on-air news media.
In the description of your book, you mention the "oligarchical elite of El Paso." Can you elaborate on that title/phrase?
To answer this, I am going to copy and paste part of the Prologue of the book:
In a city that is dominated by Hispanic culture, it is disturbingly noticeable that most of the city’s government and high-profile businesses (banks, energy companies, newspaper), and military are run by Caucasian males, even to this day. Since 1873, El Paso has had 50 mayors of which only four have been Hispanic (and only one woman during that history). Although there are wealthy Hispanics in the area, the substantial wealth of “old money” belongs to the prominent Anglo families that have lived in this desert nation for generations.
This concentration of wealth and power resembles the political structure of the nation it borders. On one hand, the democratic process of the US is used to elect officials to public office. The election process looks like most elections across the US. But those who are elected and those who are served resemble an oligarchy, much like Mexico and various areas in Latin America. If you are part of the oligarchical realm, then life seems fair and just. If you are not a part of that inner circle, then you learn how to operate within the system and ignore the realities of the power structure. Or you open your eyes to the innate corruption of this type of system and realize—painfully—that corruption is the status quo and fighting it can cost your livelihood, dignity and reputation.
Representing this in a clear form is the Paso Del Norte Group (PDNG). They are a group of wealthy El Pasoans and their membership is kept secret. However, we know that it was founded by Bill Sanders, real estate mogul and father-in-law of Beto O'Rourke. They make plans for the city and then use the city government to implement their plans including eminent domain and property tax increases. They agree to the property tax increases mostly because they are the beneficiaries of the taxpayer revenue.
Another recent book that highlights this oligarchy is Who Rules El Paso. We are not affiliated with that book, but we allege and document the same findings.
What was the single most shocking detail about the Criminal Justice System that you learned from your experience?
- The federal system is based on guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around
- The federal system is based on winning a case and not on discovering the truth. That accounts for an unrealistic 98.2% conviction rate.
- FBI agents are not as organized and efficient as we are led to believe. They rely on their power and intimidation to get targets to admit guilt--even if they are innocent-- without ever worrying about proper documentation.
- Federal prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity even when it can be proven beyond doubt that they knowingly and egregiously act against the law.
- The US Federal Grand Jury system resembles that of Nazi Germany’s. No other developed nation on Earth uses our system. All that is needed to indict is the testimony of the prosecution and hearsay is not only allowed but encouraged.
Can you describe the most rewarding aspect of your time in education?
I loved being a catalyst for students to recognize their own value and to realize that they, too, deserved to have a piece of the American pie. I still enjoy the successes of my former students as they share with me their life experiences.
What is one message you hope readers will take away from your story?
Public education in America is precious and sacred and we should not be so willing to let it go because of the sake of corporate greed and political corruption.
Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
Mark Tegmeyer and I are working on a book that will utilize the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Catholic Rosary to try and navigate the process of understanding why bad things happen to good people. We seek to dispel cliches and highlight the perils and necessity of integrity.
If you’d like to learn more about John’s story or his book, Bomshell in the Barrio, click here.
Liz Westwood from UK on October 22, 2020:
This is a well executed interview. You bring out a lot of interesting information through your questioning skills.