The plantation burns

Al Lipscomb is on trial for bribery. The real charge is "traitor."

Of course, there's no law that says you can't go up to the North Pole and argue with the Eskimos about how to make an igloo. But it's probably not a good idea to do it in front of a federal jury.

Ravkind has almost as many defenders as Lipscomb. An Amarillo lawyer, watching the case from afar, said last week, "Billy Ravkind, totally unprepared and winging it on his worst day, is probably 10 times better than most lawyers who have had all the time in the world to get ready." And the chat among the media people on the street outside the courthouse in Amarillo was that Ravkind had nothing to work with, "because Al doesn't have a case."

But the fact is that Lipscomb had two other lawyers at his table, and both did better than Ravkind. One of them, Tom Melsheimer, appeared only sporadically (he was commuting to a trial in Dallas) and didn't seem any better grounded in the case than Ravkind, but Melsheimer was compelling and effective when he spoke to the jury on procedural points.

Michael Hogue
Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb's own words championing minority cab owners were used against him by the prosecution.
Henry Bargas
Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb's own words championing minority cab owners were used against him by the prosecution.

Scottie Allen, the African-American lawyer who was shouldered out of the limelight most of the time, was the only member of the team who seemed to have a handful of notes and a road map in front of him whenever he stood up to cross-examine government witnesses. In fact, Allen, whose courtroom style is tightly controlled and intense, stuck closest to what was probably Lipscomb's best case: Did anybody ever tell anybody this was bribe money?

Allen grilled M. Joyce Brown, Lipscomb's former campaign manager-treasurer (not to be confused with Joyce Ann Brown of County Commissioner John Wiley Price's staff): "Floyd Richards never said he expected Al to do anything in exchange for the money, did he?" Allen asked.

"Correct," she said.

That was the core of the case Commissioner Price and others among Lipscomb's supporters had said his lawyers would make. Did anyone call this bribe money? Did you see Councilman Lipscomb behave in a corrupt manner as a direct result of taking this money?

Recent changes in the statute may have rendered a federal bribery-corruption case harder to make by adding emphasis to the corruption element. The government can't just show that an official took money. It has to show that a corrupt act was linked to the money. The case Allen seemed to be sticking to -- show me the corruption -- might have been a right fit with some kind of everybody-does-it story about the plantation.

Here are all these rich white people, such as former Mayor Annette Strauss and Schepps Dairy CEO Pete Schenkel, who dished money to Al and other black leaders over the years because they liked them or felt sorry for them or felt guilty, whatever: Now prove that the packet of cash money Al Lipscomb took from Floyd Richards led to a corrupt act.

But by straying far afield from that narrow argument, Ravkind waded into water where the government had the clear advantage. If Ravkind was going to argue his case on racial politics, Ravkind was going to lose.

Because just as the minority and independent cab drivers weren't just anybody, Al Lipscomb himself was definitely not just anybody. He was the man. The one. During his first tenure on the council and from 1993 to 1994 when he was forced by term limits to sit out a term, Lipscomb emerged as the single most effective advocate of the independent and minority cab drivers. As part of its case against him, the government played a CD copy of an official city council tape-recording of Lipscomb making an impassioned plea to the council in opposition to Yellow Cab and in defense of the independent and minority operators:

"I am before you today to speak for a fundamental fairness," Lipscomb told the council from the public microphone on August 10, 1994. He told the council it was wrong to consider allowing regulations that would increase the number of white-owned cabs in the city.

"Who is doing this, and what's doing this?" Lipscomb demanded. "We have empirical evidence that we have too many cabs, and yet we are talking about adding three other cab companies. For some unforeseen reason, someone who knows how to work the halls of City're putting in two Anglo competitors. That's unfair."

Describing most of the cab drivers who would be hurt as "people of color," Lipscomb said, "I don't want to make a racial issue out of this, but it's there."

In the Amarillo courtroom, to the bewildered stares of 14 white jurors from the Panhandle, the government's sound equipment blared the jubilant noise of loud applause and grateful cheers from the large crowd of African-American, Hispanic, Nigerian, and Iranian cab drivers who had filled the Dallas City Council chamber that afternoon six long years ago.

Al was their man. He was their champion. He was the hero.

"I have always been for the little person," he told the cheering throng.

That was what brought Lipscomb to the attention of Floyd Richards, the foul-mouthed drunken white man who bought Yellow Cab from Karl Kuhlman in 1990. Lipscomb wasn't just any councilman. In fact, when Richards made his move on Lipscomb in 1994, Lipscomb wasn't even on the council. Richards needed Lipscomb because of Lipscomb's role as the champion and defender of the little person and the people of color.

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