How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

City inspectors have written Jack Topletz and his family thousands of tickets for miserable conditions in their rent-house empire. They say they've ended up paying, oh, once or twice.

A few municipal judges who have been around the courts almost as long as Trantham see the city's fruitless pursuit of serial code violators as an outgrowth of inattention at the top levels of Dallas city government.

"Back in the '80s, with the severe economic downturn, these budgets were cut severely. They never were brought back," says Judge Michael O'Neal, the administrative judge over the eight city courts.

Judge Daniel Solis, who has been on the bench through much of the '90s, says green prosecutors, poorly trained code-enforcement officers, and a city code rife with loopholes have all made life easier for Trantham and his clients.

Some parts of the code are written so sloppily that they seem designed to be unenforceable, he says.

"Maybe somebody's too busy going after the Olympics to watch out for this, I don't know," Solis says. "The city has been after these guys for a long time. You think they'd have learned how to do it by now."

The Topletzes, who have been in the rent-house business for most of this century, made one of their rare appearances in the daily media recently when news broke of an extraordinary investigation. Assistant City Attorney Robin Page, a six-year veteran of the office, was placed on paid leave in April pending the outcome of a police probe into her handling of Topletz tickets.

Two WFAA-Channel 8 reports focused dramatically on the fact that 32 Topletz houses are under police scrutiny because drug dealers have rented them at some time in the past two years. The report failed to point out the rather high odds that a few drug dealers would be renting some of the Topletzes' houses, considering that scores of them are on the most blighted streets of South Dallas, West Dallas, and Oak Cliff.

On some streets, particularly in the Fair Park area at places such as Peabody Avenue, they're the only houses left standing among empty lots and boarded-up hulks tagged with big red signs: demolition fodder.

The TV reports, constructed around pictures of young black men and women toting cash and little baggies, completely ignored the long history of the city's losing war against the Topletzes' substandard housing.

Page, reached by the Observer at her home in a Mesquite subdivision, denied any wrongdoing in dismissing several dozen Topletz tickets. The dismissed cases, which had been brought by the Dallas police S.A.F.E. team about 18 months ago, appear to be the main beef against her. But police and city officials won't say exactly what she is alleged to have done wrong.

The 29-member police S.A.F.E. unit, formed in 1991, focuses on drug houses and problem apartments and combines police, code, and fire inspectors in an attempt to clean up crime-ridden nuisance properties.

Page's defense of her work rests in part on several city documents, including a log tracking the status of cases against the city's biggest code violators. The log, prepared by Page and former Assistant City Attorney Janet Dill Stewart, states the Topletz cases were dismissed because "S.A.F.E. team did not follow their procedures and therefore lacked needed info[rmation] to pros[ecute]," according to a copy of the document.

In November 1997, around the same time the cases were dismissed, Page wrote a detailed memo to S.A.F.E team Sgt. Preston Gilstrap laying out "new procedures to be implemented."

It described the process of researching deeds to establish who owns the properties and how to give property owners legal notice of violations. "When dealing with a 'problem' property owner (ex: Topletz...) all correspondence must be sent certified mail or hand delivered," Page's memo states.

Stewart, who handled ordinance cases for three years until she moved to Oklahoma in 1998, says that during her time with the city the complexity of code cases was often lost on city code inspectors and S.A.F.E. team police, resulting in many futile prosecutions. The cases require precise identification of legal owners and formal notice done just so in order for them to stick.

"There was a lot of friction with code inspectors," she says. "You'd get someone trained. Then the turnover was so great, someone else would come in, and you'd have to start over again."

Beyond that, judges would let lawyers like Trantham string the cases along for months and sometimes years, she recalls. Sometimes Trantham would fail to appear, then be granted continuances because judges rarely blame defendants for attorneys' absences.

Stewart says she was contacted several weeks ago by a police investigator pursuing Page. "That's a personal battle between Robin and the S.A.F.E. team," she says, adding that she is certain nothing will come of it.

Stewart and Page--who moved from starting jobs in prosecution to more specialized posts--developed far more experience prosecuting code violations than most prosecutors.

"Prosecution is a starting position in the city attorney's office," says O'Neal, the administrative judge. Hired fresh out of law school, most of these junior prosecutors are simply passing through on their way to positions down the street at what's known as "big City Hall." "They don't have any experience with this type of law," the judge says.

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