The plantation burns

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

AMARILLO -- The federal legal charges against Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb consist of 65 counts of bribery and conspiracy. But the real charge is treachery.

The government's underlying case against Al Lipscomb -- the moral subtext that runs beneath every syllable of government testimony -- is not that the snowy-haired 74-year-old beloved icon of the local civil rights movement has taken some money in trade for his vote on taxicab issues. It is that Al Lipscomb sold his own people down the river. Cheap.

The jurors in Amarillo, where the case was sent by the judge on a change of venue because of pre-trial publicity, might have a hard time cutting through the tangled racial politics and mores of a city hundreds of miles and cultural leagues away from them. But at some level all people across all boundaries and distance understand what betrayal is.

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.

At the beginning of the second week of trial, when the jury finally got to hear from the man who had confessed to paying Lipscomb bribes, the 12 jurors and 2 alternates had been primed by both sides to look for one answer: Was this the kind of person Al Lipscomb could possibly have loved for any reason other than his money?

Ironically, it was Lipscomb's own lead attorney who seemed to make the answer a resounding no.

From the very beginning, starting with the lawyers' opening statements, the Lipscomb trial had turned morally topsy-turvy, a departure from what had been threatened and anticipated. For a year and a half, Lipscomb's defenders had vowed to put Dallas itself in the dock if anybody dared put Lipscomb on trial.

His lawyers, so the threat went, would lay bare the dirty under-plumbing of the old Dallas plantation system of racial politics. They would exonerate Al by making him a hero in an evil city.

But almost as soon as Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Uhl began to unveil the government's carefully crafted bribery conspiracy case against Lipscomb, it was clear the prosecutors were the ones intent on burning the plantation to the ground.

In a tight, clean line they came, one after another, government witness after government witness, some black, some white, each telling smelly secrets of the old plantation system in Dallas. While Lipscomb sat in rigid silence across the boxy, high-ceilinged federal courtroom in Amarillo, the witnesses said again and again what for so long no one had dared whisper back in Dallas:

Al sold out.

And he didn't just sell out anybody. He sold out minority cab drivers, who for decades had been a key small-business and political vanguard of the black community. From Ezell Randall, the wealthy African-American owner of Terminal Cab in the 1970s and '80s, down to the humblest independent cabbie, the African-American men and women of the taxicab business had given generous financial support to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and they had served as the eyes and ears of the civil rights movement in Dallas. The government charge was that Al knifed them all in the back.

This is the real charge against Al Lipscomb: that, in exchange for $1,000 a month in cash over three years, a Cadillac, free cab rides, and some booze, Al Lipscomb helped a foul-mouthed, n-word-using white son of a bitch attempt to screw minority and independent cab drivers out of their livelihoods.

It could not be worse. But as a wretched week of testimony dragged by, one thing became more obvious: The government's case is strong. And the case Lipscomb's lawyers put on in the first week of trial was pathetic.

Pathetic.

They did try to play the plantation card. But what a mess. Billy Ravkind, Lipscomb's lead attorney and one of the most respected criminal lawyers in the country, must have spent all of his time before the trial trying to get Lipscomb to plead guilty, and that's why Ravkind didn't have time to prepare a real case. That's the generous interpretation. The other would be that Ravkind, at the end of a distinguished career, needs to buy a big boat and stay on it.

Ravkind was all over the map with a complicated racial theory -- all about how Yellow Cab of Dallas used to be a bad racist cab company until a progressive new owner brought Al Lipscomb on board as a consultant to help turn it into the paragon of racial enlightenment that it is today. Ravkind's problem was that black witnesses kept painting the former owner of Yellow Cab as a good guy, for a white guy, and definitely not a racist, while white witnesses kept painting the new owner, Floyd Richards, as a drunken, mean, racist bastard. Ravkind's racial math never worked.

Ravkind even got into it with a very credible African-American witness, putting himself in the position of being a white guy arguing with a black guy about the racism of another white guy. The more Ravkind tried to get Yellow Cab employee Walter Sterling, who is black, to say that former Yellow Cab owner Karl Kuhlman, who is white, was a racist, the worse things got for Ravkind, until Sterling finally said: "He and I drank out of the same cup sometimes. I can't call somebody like that a racist."

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.

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 Hall...you'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.

If Floyd Richards owned Al Lipscomb, he owned the race card.

Richards was already the owner of Yellow Cab companies in several cities. He had his headquarters in Fort Worth, where the backwater political climate allowed him to enjoy an impenetrable monopoly. In Fort Worth, all Floyd Richards had to do was keep the cowboys and the yes-men on the city council happy, and he didn't have to compete against a soul.

That's what he wanted in Dallas.

As part of his wacko theory of taxicabology, Ravkind tried to argue that Floyd Richards was pushing for changes in the city taxicab ordinances in Dallas to make Dallas a safer and healthier place for cab-riders, other motorists, pedestrians, and, presumably, pets and wildlife. In particular, Richards wanted the Dallas City Council to impose a hard-and-fast five-year limit on the period of time a new cab could remain in service, and he wanted the council to increase the standards for taxi insurance, requiring cab owners to buy more insurance from higher-rated insurance companies.

But a number of witnesses who had worked with Richards and presumably knew his thinking well said his entire agenda was to squeeze the little guys out of business by raising their costs and to force them to come work for him.

You can say that's just business, but that's just not the point in Lipscomb's case because of who and what Lipscomb was. No witness was more effective at deflating Ravkind's theory than Karl Kuhlman, whom Ravkind had reviled to the jury on the first day of trial as the worst kind of arrogant, rich white bigot.

"What the government forgot to tell you," Ravkind said to the jurors, "was that Yellow Cab in the 1980s was a racist cab company without a doubt. It was owned by Karl Kuhlman, who lived in the Park Cities, a Parkie. He was a racist. He didn't hire blacks. He wouldn't pick them up [in his cabs].

"As a result of Kuhlman being an unapologetic racist, Yellow Cab went bankrupt in the late 1980s," Ravkind said. He told the jurors that the first thing Floyd Richards wanted to do when he took over the company was help it overcome its racist reputation and also help make Dallas safer for motorists by persuading the city council to pass stiffer cab regulations. In these efforts, he enlisted the aid of then-former Councilman Albert Lipscomb.

"Al Lipscomb never did a single thing that wasn't in the best interests of the people of the city of Dallas," Ravkind said in his opening statement.

There were at least three problems with all of that. The first was the string of black witnesses who argued convincingly that Kuhlman was not a racist and that Yellow Cab under his ownership had lots of black drivers and served black as well as white neighborhoods. The second was that Kuhlman himself, when he took the stand at the end of the week, came across as a decent human being.

But the biggest problem was what several witnesses told the court concerning Floyd Richards' campaign to manipulate the Dallas City Council. They said Richards didn't give a damn about safety. He wanted the city council to help him put his competitors out of business through increased regulation.

Ravkind, who wanted the jury to get the idea that Lipscomb was out to make Dallas a safer city with age limits for cabs, kept walking into sucker punches by asking the government's witnesses open-ended questions:

"Are you telling me that these things [the age limits and tighter insurance regulations] wouldn't have been supported by most of the cab industry?" Ravkind asked former Yellow employee and government witness Walter Sterling. (Picture Ravkind with an apple on his head.)

"No, it would not have been supported by most of the cab industry," Sterling said, "because they would have to go out and buy new cabs."

Ravkind argued with him, which gave Sterling a chance to get down to some good numbers. The new regulations, he said, would have forced between 500 and 1,000 cabs into retirement, and all of those slots probably would have been gobbled up by Yellow, doubling its size and eliminating its competition.

The especially salient piece Kuhlman brought to the jury was his insight into Floyd Richards. Kuhlman explained how Richards came to the decision that pouring an alleged $100,000 in cash, goods, and benefits into the personal and campaign coffers of Al Lipscomb over three years would be a good investment decision.

Kuhlman told the jury that Yellow Cab of Dallas, which had belonged to his wife's family, was insolvent at the end of the 1980s because of a bad investment he had made in a computerized dispatch system -- not at all because the black community disapproved of Yellow Cab. Kuhlman sold to Richards, and Richards kept him on to run the day-to-day operations.

Kuhlman was one of several witnesses who said that Richards began giving money to Sandra Crenshaw, a Lipscomb protégé who occupied Lipscomb's council seat during the 1993-'94 hiatus when Lipscomb was off the council. In addition to describing cash payments to Crenshaw, Kuhlman said, "Floyd got real friendly with Miss Crenshaw."

But several witnesses said Richards turned on Crenshaw and decided he wanted to make sure she would not be re-elected in 1995. Kuhlman told the jury it was Richards' idea, confided to Kuhlman, that Richards should put Al Lipscomb back in office.

Kuhlman testified: "In March or April of 1995, Floyd came by my office, and he said, 'Karl, don't you think it would be good if I could get Mr. Lipscomb, being the senior statesman, so to speak, if he was re-elected, that on taxicab issues the council would probably listen to what he had to say? With just a little bit of encouragement from a minority, they would probably go along with it?'"

Indeed, whatever kind of foul-mouthed drunk Richards may be, his political insight is keen and ruthless. If it were not for the minority community and the leadership of Al Lipscomb in particular, the white-majority Dallas City Council of the mid-1990s would have had no trouble at all rolling over a bunch of independent cab drivers and people of color to help a good ol' boy set up a monopoly.

The next piece in the puzzle was supplied to jurors by Linda Pavlik, a government witness, former reporter for the Dallas Times Herald and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and now a political consultant. With complete equanimity, Pavlik told the jury a depressing story -- even though she didn't seem to think it was depressing -- of how she stepped in to advise Richards on how to buy a Dallas City Council seat.

The 1995 cost of one contested seat on the Dallas City Council: $25,000 to $30,000. The race was contested because a very bitter Sandra Crenshaw refused to step aside for her former mentor and was running against him. Pavlik told Richards that meant they would need TV ads, phone banks, polls, voter transportation, etc.

Richards' reaction? He said he'd pay for the whole thing. A mere $25,000, after all, is the cost of one new cab. Richards was looking at laws that would add as many as 1,000 cabs to his fleet.

Pavlik told the jurors how she had explained to Richards that there was this little thing called the law: An individual, in a Dallas City Council race, can contribute only up to $1,000, and corporations can't contribute at all. It was Pavlik who came up with a plan for Richards to loan money to Lipscomb's son-in-law, who would then loan it to the Lipscomb campaign to get money into the campaign legally, sort of.

It worked. Lipscomb was re-elected in May 1995, and from that moment on he was so deep in Floyd Richards' pocket, he couldn't smell much else. Prosecutors Uhl and James T. Jacks in Amarillo presented evidence of how Lipscomb immediately began carrying water for Yellow Cab's anti-competitive campaign.

A city council tape-recording played for the jury has Lipscomb speaking against the creation of a new small cab company: "Apparently this is a brand-new company coming in," Lipscomb said, this time from his place at the dais. "What type of impact will it have on the existing companies that are already trying to make a living?"

But his main mission was to push for the higher insurance requirements and the age limits that would help to force small operators off the street. The government showed how his position on insurance requirements put Lipscomb directly at odds with city staff members who were championing small, minority- and women-owned businesses. The staff argued that raising the insurance requirements too high might even set a precedent that would make it impossible for small businesses and start-ups to do business with the city.

The argument cut no ice with Al Lipscomb. He said what Floyd Richards told him to say.

Some of the ugliest testimony of the trial was elicited from Pavlik, the political consultant, by assistant U.S. Attorney Uhl, concerning the attitude of Floyd Richards toward both Sandra Crenshaw and Al Lipscomb.

"Floyd would often call me late at night," Pavlik said, "and be very angry, most often when he was drunk, and he was an alcoholic, and he'd be very boisterous and loud."

Uhl asked her what Richards would say about Crenshaw and Lipscomb.

"He would say he had bought and paid for them," she said.

Did he use racial epithets? Uhl asked.

"Yes, he did."

"Did he use the n-word when he referred to them?"

"Yes, he did."

One of the stranger aspects of the trial in Amarillo is the mystery of how this kind of testimony falls on the ears of an all-white jury chosen from an 18-county area of the Texas Panhandle. Amarillo is 6 percent black. The jury questionnaires identifying the jurors have been suppressed by the court, but it's a safe bet that many of the areas these jurors come from are zero percent black.

An Amarillo lawyer, trying to explain how conservative these juries can be, said, "You know how bad it is when I tell you I try to get Baptists on my juries to keep the Church of Christers off."

But the genius of the government's case is that it offers a logic more fundamental than race. No matter which race or clan or affinity group a person belongs to, the principles of loyalty and betrayal are the same. They are universal.

The picture painted of Floyd Richards by Pavlik, Kuhlman, and other witnesses is devastating for Lipscomb because Richards was so clearly Lipscomb's worst enemy, a ruthless white trampler of the law, a greedy drunk, a man whose business plan was monopoly, a man who spewed the n-word about Al Lipscomb in drunken late-night calls.

Lipscomb's lawyers had said before the trial they would make much of the fact that Richards had changed his testimony. Richards appeared before a federal grand jury last year and said under oath that he had not intended his payments to Lipscomb as bribes. Someone in Lipscomb's camp also leaked information to The Dallas Morning News that Richards had passed a lie-detector test saying he hadn't intended the money as bribes.

In its presentation of the case, the government has never been cocky, sharp-spoken, or personally disrespectful to Al Lipscomb. Instead, allowing the case to unfold from the mouths of the witnesses, the government has painted a picture of tragedy and betrayal.

But because of the way the government built its case -- and the way Ravkind walked into it -- the specifics of what Floyd Richards said or didn't say were always going to be relatively unimportant.

Ravkind fought them on their own grounds. He played the other man's game. He told the jury it wasn't betrayal because Floyd Richards was a good man and a good friend to Al Lipscomb.

The upshot was that the jury was never waiting to find out what Floyd Richards was going to say. They were waiting to find out what he was.

On Tuesday morning of the second week of trial, when Floyd Richards finally took the oath, it seemed at first as if Al Lipscomb's legal team might finally have a good day. Ravkind came across cooler and more focused than at the ragged end of the previous week. He cross-examined Richards about a series of answers Richards had given on his lie-detector test two months ago (the test results were inadmissible). The answers to the lie-detector questions, initially confirmed by Richards in Amarillo, seemed to greatly strengthen the best argument of the defense -- that the specific tit-for-tat agreements necessary to make a federal proof of bribery corruption had never taken place.

Referring to the answers Richards had given to the lie-detector operator last year, Ravkind said: "You stated that you never tied the money to a particular vote...You only expected Mr. Lipscomb to answer your phone calls..."

Richards agreed he had given those answers and seemed to stand by them.

"Did you indicate to Al Lipscomb that the money you gave to Al Lipscomb was contingent on his vote?"

"No."

Things were going nicely for the defense for a change. Even more important, Richards, a stocky 56-year-old man with blond hair, a gray beard, and bulldog jaw, was cordial and clearly conveyed to the jury that he hated the position he was in -- state's evidence against a friend.

But for some inexplicable reason, Ravkind started to ride Richards, grilling him, pushing him hard, demanding that he answer complex moral questions about bribery and influence -- distinctions that seemed far outside Richards' normal realm of speculation or interest. Eventually Richards shot out his jaw, leaned forward red-faced and surly, and began dueling with Ravkind.

"You know," Richards barked at him finally, "I'm paying a man a thousand dollars a month, he's going to vote for me." Richards sat back and tipped his jaw up with a nasty little smile. In that moment he was the perfect portrait of the kind of fat, mean little redneck Al Lipscomb should never have given the time of day. And it was Billy Ravkind who had painted the picture for the jury.

The vision of Albert Lipscomb stuck in the paw of a man like Floyd Richards is especially painful, like a knife in the heart, for people who know the vision of Albert Lipscomb, the young warrior for civil rights.

While the trial was on hiatus for the weekend and for Martin Luther King Day, there was a special commemorative service at Mount Olive Lutheran Church on MLK in South Dallas honoring the birth and life of King. Bishop Mark Herbener, who was pastor of Mount Olive in the 1960s and '70s during the movement years, spoke of Dallas' dark secret -- that the black clergy of Dallas, led by the late S.M. Wright, turned their backs on Martin Luther King Jr. In the mid-1960s, when MLK had come to Dallas to speak at the Fair Park Music Hall, Herbener came to the hall, saw it empty, and realized the black clergy in Dallas were heeding Wright's call to boycott MLK's speech.

At Sunday's service, Bishop Herbener introduced Peter Johnson, a former Southern Christian Leadership Conference field organizer during the civil rights movement years. Johnson completed Herbener's anecdote about MLK's bitter day in Dallas. Johnson was one of the staff who met MLK when he returned to Atlanta after the Dallas visit and saw him shed tears over his treatment by the black clergy here.

In this atmosphere of extreme conservatism in the 1960s and '70s, fear of violent white reprisal, of bombings and murder, was absolutely real. The bombings happened. Johnson told the gathering last Sunday of a particular night in 1969, when the SCLC and its supporters were huddled in the basement of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, planning an action to stop the Cotton Bowl Parade the next day in protest of real estate discrimination.

The Dallas police chief, Johnson said, came to the church and ordered it evacuated because of repeated credible bomb threats that were coming in.

"He said, 'We can't let you stay here,'" Johnson said Sunday. Johnson told a rapt audience last Sunday that he told the chief that night he knew all about the threats. The bomb threats were being called in to the church as well. He told the chief some people would leave and some would not. He said he told everyone present in the basement that night who had children with them or waiting at home to leave.

Johnson said he drew a line across the church basement floor. He told the anxious crowd in the basement that anyone who wanted to leave could go and there would be no hard feelings. Anyone who wanted to stay and brave the bomb threats and whatever else might follow should cross the line.

"The first person to walk across that line," Johnson said, "was Albert Lipscomb."

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