Black out

Lipscomb takes his story to Anglo Amarillo and hopes it plays better than prosecutors'

AMARILLO -- Last week when Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb told his lawyers he wasn't going to plead guilty to corruption charges and would face trial here on a change of venue instead, the lawyers more or less panicked. Walk around downtown Amarillo for a couple of hours, and you see why.

No black people.

If you're African-American and you come here, maybe you spot it right away. It takes a white boy a little longer. Something odd in the firmament, something missing. They've got the buildings. The cars and trucks. Trees. Birds. Just something not quite there about the place.

Al Lipscomb would rather fight than quit -- even in Amarillo.
Martin Menocal
Al Lipscomb would rather fight than quit -- even in Amarillo.

No black people.

Now, first of all, I have to say right away that it's not true. There are black people here. The 1990 census found that 6 percent of the city's population of 160,000 was African-American. City Manager John Q. Ward told me Monday he thinks the percentage has moved up to 6.4 percent by now.

Hey, takin' over!

But you know what I mean. If your normal daily environment is a diverse downtown streetscape like Dallas, then it feels a little strange to walk around a place where an entire ethnic group seems to be out of town that day.

The black people who are here are minimally visible in the life of the city, especially downtown in the vicinity of the courts and the municipal buildings. The black community sued twice and was defeated both times in attempts to establish single-member districts for the city council, with the result that there has never been a black Amarillo city council member. A suit against the school district succeeded in forcing an out-of-court settlement, which produced a watered-down single-member system, so for the first time there is now one black school board member. Compared with Dallas, the racial time warp here puts Amarillo somewhere in the early 1970s.

And from the point of view of many people in Dallas, that's the whole issue with moving the Lipscomb trial up here. Last week before I left town, I went to lunch with a very bright and respected Dallas judge who said, "If he winds up with an all-white jury up there, and he gets convicted, that's not going to be received at all well by the black community in Dallas."

The federal jury pool for Amarillo is actually drawn from the surrounding 18 counties. We're talking about some outlying areas where the populace is so white, their definition of white barely includes Lutherans.

Of course, that's exactly why some people say U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall elected on his own, without being asked, to move the trial to Amarillo -- to screw Lipscomb. That may be unfair to Kendall. The judge could have had entirely non-racist reasons for wanting to screw Lipscomb.

For one thing, Lipscomb's lawyers kept telling everybody they were going to subpoena every rich white powerbroker in the city who ever gave Al Lipscomb a dime and embarrass the hell out of all of them in court. So maybe Kendall wanted to earn himself some Dallas social points by sparing the biggies an unpleasantness.

Moving the trial here doesn't spare anybody, of course, with all of the Dallas media camped outside the Amarillo Federal Building, relaying every syllable and nuance back by live feed. But it would have spared them if Al had been so frightened by Amarillo that he accepted the government's offer of a plea bargain and obviated the trial.

There's also a rumor going around that the judge, who has a certain reputation for pique, put the trial up here to punish the defense lawyers for leaking lie-detector results to the media. (Before he came around to the government's side and copped a guilty plea, co-defendant Floyd Richards, owner of Yellow Cab of Dallas, passed a test on the lie-box in which he swore he had never intended his gifts as bribes.)

But who knows? Judges don't explain these things. A source close to the government even suggested last week that Kendall's move could just as easily be interpreted as protective of Lipscomb. Just because everybody in the Dallas jury pool knows him, does that mean everybody likes him?

When Lipscomb turned down the government's offer of a plea bargain and elected to come here and take his chances instead, his decision prompted a strange moment in local legal history: Two of his lawyers, the white ones, told The Dallas Morning News they thought their client was pretty much dead in the water. Scottie Allen, his black lawyer, was ready to march on Amarillo. But the white guys, Billy Ravkind and Tom Melsheimer, told the News they thought Lipscomb's chances of acquittal at trial were "no better than 20 to 30 percent."

If you're the client, you hate to see your own lawyers on the front page saying stuff like that, even if it's true. Especially when you figure that's their game face.

Other things bothered them, of course -- especially the defection of Floyd Richards. That wasn't good.

But how much is Richards worth as a witness? After years of insisting there was no quid pro quo in the money he gave Lipscomb, Richards, who is frail and unwell, suddenly changes his story to avoid prison? A lawyer like Billy Ravkind normally eats witnesses like this for health food.

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