The untouchables

A whistleblower learns the hard way that you don't rat on your betters at Dallas City Hall

Here is the quiz: A city employee sees something crooked going on. He reports it. His claims are investigated and found to be completely true.

What does it mean -- what do you suppose is going on -- if the reaction of the Dallas City Council is to defend vigorously the people exposed by the employee, and then to lambaste the employee himself for having made a technical error in the reporting process?

Please choose one: It means we have 1) a very honest city council with an unflinching eye for moral lapses; 2) a funny city council that was just joking; or 3) a city council with ethical instincts borrowed from the exercise yard at the state pen.

City architect Robert Troy was flabbergasted when council members assailed him for reporting a contract-rigging incident.
Mark Graham
City architect Robert Troy was flabbergasted when council members assailed him for reporting a contract-rigging incident.

Now just try to imagine for half a minute what it's like to be Robert Troy, the senior city architect who brought the charges. He saw something dishonest going on. It made him mad, because it was wrong.

Troy was in charge of a committee that was supposed to choose among 14 architectural firms invited to bid on a half-million-dollar contract with the city's Office of Cultural Affairs. The city has a densely written policy for how these decisions must be made. To his distress, Troy watched while several senior city officials -- up to and including First Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm -- corrupted the process in order to steer the contract to a particular company.

So he blew the whistle. The city auditor investigated his claims and agreed the situation Troy had reported was a serious violation of city rules and policy. The auditor himself used the word "corrupted" to describe the way top city officials had rigged the deal.

But when an official city auditor's report on the charges first was presented to the council at a subcommittee meeting on October 25, council members Veletta Lill, Barbara Mallory Caraway, and Maxine Thornton-Reese jumped on Troy. They said he was the bad guy for having the nerve to discuss his charges publicly.

So upset were they that the public was in on it that they suggested the whole report was "flawed."

Lill also told the subcommittee she considered it unfair that the city auditor had found even more things wrong with the Office of Cultural Affairs than what Troy originally had reported, as if this were a violation of the Dallas City Hall Corruption Book of Hoyle.

Troy was almost speechless.

"They're trying to make me look bad," he said last week, totally overwhelmed. "They're trying to throw discredit on me."

Troy is a relatively new city employee who, for most of his career, was an architect and a teacher of architecture in colleges and universities. He knew the firms bidding for the job were investing thousands of dollars' worth of effort, resources, and cash in a contest they all assumed or at least hoped was honest.

He had tried to make it honest. When he found out it wasn't, he tried to bring the whole mess to the attention of people at the top in City Hall, assuming they would want to clean it up. What he didn't know was that the main target of his accusations, Margie Reese, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, is closely wired into two very important constituencies: the upper circles of wealthy black political power in Dallas, and the city's tight-knit community of moneyed arts patrons.

In political terms, Troy was a nobody who had tried to do a citizen's arrest on a somebody. He had violated the one law that really counts in Dallas: the rule of social caste.

Jan Adams, Margie Reese's former management assistant and the other city employee who helped Troy blow the whistle, was also upset. Reese fired Adams in July for failing to help her rig the bid process. But last week, Adams was feeling sorry not for herself but for Troy. "He's like a baby who has just been born," she said. "He thought they were going to thank him and then go fire all of the people he reported. He's just finding out how it is."

Margie Reese is the main gatekeeper for the city's $9.5 million annual arts budget. She and her husband, Foster Reese III, a lawyer, serve on boards and move in circles with the mayor and many of the mayor's political financial backers. In her career as the city's culture czar, Reese has drawn power and support from her social connections. In those circles, jobs and deals, college admissions and postings in the Air National Guard, may trade hands in a wink over the lip of a champagne glass.

Practically speaking, there is no way the public can ever learn what motives someone in that position may have for jimmying the process. That's why they're not supposed to jimmy.

It's simple: If you're not crooked, don't jimmy. If you jimmy, people must assume you're crooked, even if they can't see the wink or the bubbly.

Councilwoman Mallory Caraway, whose husband is a paid operative in black political circles, tried to suggest that Troy had some kind of ax to grind against Margie Reese -- an utterly baseless charge as far as anyone can tell. And Veletta Lill, an East Dallas council member associated with the culture vultures, even suggested that the auditor, Robert Melton, had been swayed toward his findings by publicity.

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