That giant sucking sound

No, not The Dallas Morning News' arena coverage--but tax dollars being siphoned away for millionaires' pet projects

In the meantime, desperate for money, Culbertson borrowed $600,000 from Perot--advance money for the sale, as Culbertson understood it; a mere loan, according to Perot when it all went to court.

Well, the "sale" dragged on for over three years. Perot always had some excuse not to buy the property--he was out of the country, he felt the land had lost its value, he saw additional title defects. Perot began giving Culbertson low-ball offers, which Culbertson refused. Finally, the $600,000 note from Perot became due, and Culbertson could not pay. Perot offered to take title to the land for what Culbertson owed--but the rancher refused.

In fall 1993, Perot's people called the note, and the ranch was sold in foreclosure--to Perot, for $637,361.

Culbertson sued, but died before the case could go to trial. His family subsequently settled the case for a reported $1 million.

Perot aide Frank Zaccanelli, a notorious business shark who, by the way, negotiated the Dallas arena deal, told the Star-Telegram when asked about the Culbertson lawsuit: "The last thing we want to do is get in a fight with an 80-year-old guy that we loaned money to, that we tried to help out and say, 'Listen, pay our bills; here's some money, we just need some collateral.'"

And if you believe that, have I got a great deal for you--a new sports arena in downtown Dallas that won't cost the taxpayers a dime. (This arena is going to cost Dallas taxpayers so much money that I guarantee, if the vote passes, you'll instantly hear the giant sucking sound--to use one of Perot Sr.'s little witticisms--of tax moneys being diverted from other, much more worthy projects around the city.)

Dallas residents who find the seven-year-old Sam Culbertson story instructive should wonder why they've never read a word about it in The Dallas Morning News--the Pulitzer Prize-winning daily that mints money but feels far more comfortable publishing an endless series on Death-Row criminals than one instructive story about the hometown boy--raised on Strait Lane, educated at St. Mark's--who is about to surpass Ray Hunt on the public thievery thermometer.

Instead, The News' idea of covering the proposed arena is this: Print a front-page lead story on December 4, the day after the master agreement is unveiled, titled: "City could pay $20 million beyond tab for building arena." Despite the accuracy of the assertion--hell, reporter Todd Gillman was at the council briefing; he ought to know--the pro-arena faction comes unglued at the bad publicity and complains to the newspaper's brass.

The following day, a longer story is printed to correct the first. It's not labeled a correction, mind you, but is positioned in the same ultra-prominent place on the front page, under a headline precisely as large and bold that reads: "Arena backers say costs haven't grown."

Although Gillman declined to comment on the sausage-making process that is utilized at The News--I know it well; I used to work there--three co-workers of his were too disgusted not to comment, albeit not for attribution. "It started out in the morning with, 'Do a story that fleshes out the details of the deal,'" says one reporter. "Then it becomes something [Publisher] Burl [Osborne] wants. And later in the day, it was the editors going up to see the muckety-mucks. When I picked up the paper, I was surprised it was so obvious a turnabout. They didn't even try to mask it. It sucks."

Says another News reporter: "We did some pretty serious crawling away from our story." (Burl Osborne did not return calls for this story.)

Despite the hometown newspaper's lengthy Jekyll-and-Hyde coverage of the arena master agreement, it managed to leave out one little point on page 6 that I found most instructive, vis-a-vis Perot's true intentions.

Perot, it seems, specifically asked to be allowed to build an arena with as few as 18,000 seats. And, like everything else he asked for, his wish was granted.

That means we could easily spend $125 million in taxpayer money on a new arena--and an additional $20 million and counting on surrounding infrastructure--so we can get an extra 500 seats for our pathetic basketball team, which can't fill the house now.

That's right--500 seats. (Reunion Arena currently has 17,502 seats for basketball.)

All pro-arena hyperbole to the contrary, this is reality: If the taxpayers vote yes to the new arena, they will be moving their professional sports teams a quarter-mile down the freeway, to an equally remote tract of land, separated--just as Reunion is--from downtown proper by roadways and railroad tracks.

The new arena, like the old one, will be completely surrounded by ugly, uninviting, asphalt parking lots--only this time, patrons will emerge from a new, world-class arena to stare at an abandoned power plant.

All this for a building more than twice as big as Reunion in square footage--with potentially only 500 more seats inside.

So what's going on here? What is this about? It's about money--money for Perot and Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks, neither of whom want low-priced seats for the masses as much as they want the room to build 120 corporate suites, 135 snack stands, two food courts, 20 merchandise stands, a pro shop, a 200-person restaurant, a 200-person sports bar, and 20,000 square feet of retail space. And the taxpayers won't get a dime of the proceeds.

To use Perot's own words to the Star-Telegram: "We are creative, we are focused, we are aggressive, and we really don't care about the traditional view of the world."

We notice. And on January 17, we'll let you know what we think about it.

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