Saint Al

Will he die in prison for the sins of the plantation?

The other lesson to be drawn from Crenshaw's testimony is that, even if Strauss did lean on him, it was only after he had leaned on her and walked away with a personal scholarship. The black activists, if anything, tend to remember Mayor Strauss well.

"I have the utmost respect for Mayor Strauss," says Roy Williams. "I think she was critical to our getting 14-1. If one of these other former mayors had been there, we wouldn't have had it."

In fact, the way the game is played and has always been played in Dallas almost assumes that, in return for every give, eventually there will be a take. It's not against the rules. It's a tradition so deeply woven in the fabric of local politics that some people, even people who see it as perpetuating white control, wonder if it can be construed as corruption.

Robert Bowen, the former SCLC activist who watches Dallas politics from a comfortable distance now, asks, "How can you corrupt something that you totally control?"

According to people who have been interviewed by the FBI, the questions the FBI is asking closely track information reported by Laura Miller in her May 30, 1996, Observer cover story on Lipscomb, "Clueless" (see sidebar on page 36, "Business as usual"). There has been great bitterness in some sectors of the black community over Miller's stories about the councilman. But it is also a fact that a person close to Lipscomb claims to have carried copies of Miller's Observer stories around to several prominent Dallas business leaders, telling them every word of it is true and that they had better be concerned, because they are named in the story too. The object, the person said, was to get the FBI probe shut down politically.

Specifically, the person carrying copies of the Observer to the city's power brokers wanted them to notice that Miller had outlined the pattern by which many of the city's major locally owned corporations began doing business with Lipscomb's chemical company after he was re-elected to the council in 1995, buying chemicals from his company while he continued to vote on matters of interest to them. The other point was to call attention to the pattern by which some of those same companies may have funneled campaign contributions to Lipscomb through a pattern of small checks from multiple employees.

"They all jumped up and said, 'That's completely legal!'" the person says. "But I told them even if it was legal, Mr. Lipscomb learned from them. He saw them doing things like that, and he's a man of limited education, and he may not have gotten it quite right himself, but he learned from them!"

Given the nature of the federal statute under which Lipscomb would be tried--if he is tried--it appears unlikely that the chemical company transactions will get any of Lipscomb's clients indicted. But it's not inconceivable that some of them could wind up spending some very awkward time in the witness stand and in front of the cameras while Lipscomb's lawyers work on a jury nullification strategy--blaming the whole thing on cynical rich white people who used up a good-hearted old black man and then threw him away like trash.

Obviously the FBI is interested in large gifts of cash filtered to Lipscomb by family members from Floyd Richards, owner of Yellow Cab, specifically a $12,000 payment to Lipscomb that turned up in his son-in-law's bankruptcy filing.

There is no federal bribery statute that touches local officials. Instead, the U.S. attorney must use a statute governing extortion by public officials. In order to meet the test of that statute, the government must show criminal intent on the part of the official as well as an agreement between the official and the bribe-payer that the bribe will be closely followed by a corrupt official act.

A middleperson between Richards and Lipscomb is believed to be ready to testify that the money Richards gave Lipscomb's son-in-law was intended as a bribe. It's pretty good circumstantial evidence, but far less than a smoking gun under the statute. (Richards would not grant an interview. His attorney has said the money Richards gave Lipscomb's son-in-law was intended as a loan.)

Susan Klein, a law professor at UT-Austin and an expert in federal criminal statutes, says most such cases depend on tape-recorded evidence or the testimony of a bribe-giver who rolls over on the bribe-taker.

"Without that, you could offer the jury circumstantial evidence of an agreement," she says. "That would be more difficult."

If Miller's reporting was the starting place, the investigation seems to have proceeded from there to a number of other interesting areas. Yellow Cab has been the main player in a bitter taxi war that has smoldered in Dallas for several years. As in many cities, the Dallas City Council grants virtual cartel control of the local cab business to a few companies by controlling the number of licenses granted.

Lipscomb has been a key player and vote on this and other cab issues, including permission to place major facilities outside the city limits and even control over the ownership of one company.

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