Ethical dilemma

It was reformers vs. the business-as-usual crowd on Dallas' ethics task force. Somehow the reformers won. Sort of.

Matt Orwig could smell victory.

Perched nervously on the edge of his swivel chair, the assistant U.S. attorney tried not to glance too obviously at the big wall clock in the conference room of the city manager's office. "I wanna vote, I wanna vote, I wanna vote," he thought, half hoping telekinesis might speed the half-dozen men and women working their way through tedious punchlists of cleanup amendments to a new city ethics code.

It had been six months since Orwig first took his seat at this table, eager to overhaul the city's ethics rules. And like several others, he was surprised to see that the ethics task force immediately broke into factions: the reformers vs. the business-as-usual bunch. The task force's work had the potential to become a bloody, bitter fight.

State District Judge John Creuzot played a decisive role in getting his fellow task force members to sign off on a meaningful ethics code.
James Elliott
State District Judge John Creuzot played a decisive role in getting his fellow task force members to sign off on a meaningful ethics code.
Donna Halstead, a former city council member and president of the Dallas Citizens Council, was the task force's most ardent advocate for the status quo.
Donna Halstead, a former city council member and president of the Dallas Citizens Council, was the task force's most ardent advocate for the status quo.

Instead, the 15 members, each appointed by a city council member or the mayor, had generated a miracle: Prominent citizens of goodwill, all of whom wanted the best for Dallas but had wildly differing notions of what that might be, had hammered out a genuine political compromise.

And now, on August 4, after more than 30 meetings, they had a new ethics code -- a code that, Orwig thought, was a significant improvement. Not that it was perfect; Orwig and his fellow reformers had given in on a number of substantive provisions, and the result was a set of ethics rules far less strict than those recently adopted by cities such as San Antonio and San Jose.

They gave on substance because they got something important in return: the establishment of an Ethics Advisory Commission, a standing group of 15 citizens that would receive and review ethics complaints filed under the new scheme.

It was a delicate compromise. Most of the former political insiders on the task force were profoundly uncomfortable with the notion of oversight by non-insiders. While the proposed commission had no power to punish, it could determine publicly that a violation had occurred and then place the matter before the city council. The commission's mere existence would represent an enormous shift in the city government's attitude toward ethical misdeeds.

And the task force members knew it. The provision establishing the ethics commission, or EAC, had been challenged no fewer than six times. But it was still in, and Orwig was desperately trying to move the document to a final vote.

He had already spent hours working the phone, tallying and retallying votes, comparing numbers with Donna Halstead, his most passionate opponent. Halstead, a former city council member and president of the Dallas Citizens Council, a group of business leaders who wield much power in city politics, insisted the vote was too close to call. But Orwig, whose disarming country-boy bonhomie made him welcome in all camps, was convinced he had a better read on several swing votes. The way Orwig counted, there were only three still opposed. Yet he still felt a sense of great urgency. "I could feel the momentum shifting," he recalls. "People were getting tired. And they were going to start switching votes." Not to mention going on vacation.

Orwig scanned the room, glanced at the clock. Then he settled back and waited for the vote he felt was sure to come.

The last thing he expected was trouble from a member of his own camp.

When task force chair and former city Councilman Max Wells asked whether there were any other items, Assistant District Attorney Clark Birdsall cleared his throat. "I just have one or two items," the 44-year-old DA said disarmingly. Rising to pass out a sheet of paper, he talked as he went. "This is something that the code, as it's currently written, doesn't address. It's designed to cover the John Ware situation."

There was utter silence in the room.

Birdsall sat down. A few people started to fidget. Others sat, staring or pretending to stare at the densely written provision. A few began to ask questions about the language of the amendment. To their surprise, Birdsall seemed confused about what his own proposal meant.

Whoa, Orwig thought. He didn't write this. We're going to get some drama now.

Assistant City Attorney Lisa Christopherson walked over and whispered something to Max Wells; Wells, in turn, leaned over to Orwig and several others. "I wish he hadn't done that," Wells said, simply.

He might have been referring to Birdsall's big faux pas, mentioning Ware by name. Or he might have been referring to the highly charged nature of the issue Birdsall had raised. Ware, of course, is the former city manager who negotiated Dallas' arena deal with Tom Hicks, whereby Hicks was promised $125 million of the city's tax revenue to help build his new basketball and hockey venue. Many citizens felt Hicks wasn't the only person who got something out of the deal. In June 1998, six months after the arena papers were inked and five months after voters approved the deal in an extremely close election, Ware announced he was leaving city government to head a Hicks-funded investment company.

The episode prompted a huge outcry. Average citizens thought Ware's actions stank, and a few crusaders, including city Councilwoman Laura Miller, took up a cry for ethics reform. Miller's protests led directly to the creation of the ethics task force. City Hall insiders, however, knew Ware and, truth be told, liked him far better than they did Miller. They were convinced that the city manager had done nothing to sell out the city and that Miller was using the incident for her own political purposes.

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