The art of the touch

Too bad Al Lipscomb never learned to do it like Judge Kendall and his wife

Some weeks after former city Councilman Al Lipscomb was convicted of bribery in federal court, a local wag said to me, "They railroaded a guilty man!"

And for many people, there's the rub. It's not a question of whether he took the bribes but more an issue of whether the same rules apply to everybody the same way.

Lipscomb, 74 years old and in bad health, was convicted in January of 65 counts of bribery and conspiracy by a federal jury in Amarillo. When U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall took it on himself to move the trial to lily-white West Texas, there was outrage and dismay among the many people in Dallas who love and revere Lipscomb.

Do the same rules apply to everybody? Ask federal Judge Joe Kendall.
Do the same rules apply to everybody? Ask federal Judge Joe Kendall.

Federal judges don't typically explain themselves, and Kendall has never said why he moved the trial. But once the trial opened, the truth is that the government bulldozed the defense with a solidly built case that would have been tough to beat no matter where the trial took place. Federal prosecutor Mike Uhl proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Lipscomb had taken money from a cab-company owner in exchange for his vote on cab-related issues.

But especially in black Dallas, even among people who can see that Lipscomb did wrong, there is still a nagging sense that something about this case was out of balance. The most common way people put it is this: "What's the difference between Al's taking $1,000 a month from Yellow Cab to vote their way on taxicab issues and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk taking several hundred thousand dollars a year from a law firm he admits he does no work for?"

At one level, the answer to that question is so obvious, it barely seems worth the trouble it takes to say it out loud: It's not against the law to be a partner in a law firm. It is against the law to take bribes.

It seems patronizing and even morally sleazy to make some kind of special rule for Lipscomb because he's old, because he's poor, because he's black. Don't we all have to live by the same rules?

And yet, that's really the underlying question, isn't it? Are the rules really the same? In a city where power has always been secretive, oligarchical, self-seeking, and hugely hypocritical, is there double-bookkeeping for rich white people? Do people in power tend to forgive in themselves and their friends the very same kinds of greedy moral lapses that get them all bug-eyed and frothing at the mouth when it's some person with dark skin and no money doing it?

I sure can't offer definitive answers to that one, but I think I can steer us toward a useful point of departure: the 1998 suburban city council campaign of Ronnie Kendall, wife of the judge in the Lipscomb trial.

Judge Kendall's wife made political history of a sort in that case by raising more than $15,800 to run for a council seat in the town of Southlake, which is one of those instant whitebread encampments on the cotton patch north of the airport, where a typical war chest for a city council race has always been more like $3,000.

How and why did Mrs. Kendall raise such a vast sum to run for office in a town of 21,000 souls? The main way she did it was by raising two-thirds of her money from people who didn't live in Southlake, including a number of prominent Dallas plaintiffs' lawyers and other people in the legal profession. I'm not good enough at names to spot every single person on her contribution lists who may have had business in the federal courts at some time, and unfortunately the records of the U.S. Northern District courts are set up so that you can't search them by lawyer or judge.

But I can spot some of the more likely candidates. For example, Debbie D. Branson, a lawyer and wife of super-bucks plaintiffs' attorney Frank L. Branson, expressed her concern for good government in Southlake by kicking in a thousand dollars. Lacie Truelove Crow, wife of plaintiffs' attorney Patrick Q. Crow, and Lisa Blue, lawyer and wife of lawyer Fred Baron, the asbestos-damages mogul, kicked in a grand apiece. John R. Howie, a successful plaintiffs' attorney, contributed a thousand dollars. Ben C. Martin, another plaintiffs' attorney, put in a couple of hundred bucks, as did Dallas lawyer Charlie Waters.

The list goes on.

In the May 1998 election, Ronnie Kendall defeated her seriously outgunned opponent, who had raised less than $3,000, and has served on the Southlake City Council since. Normally Joe Kendall, like most federal judges, never talks to reporters. His deputy told me he has never given a comment for the record to a reporter in the seven years she's worked for him.

But Kendall did give a quote to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time of his wife's election. He told the paper he had 400 pending criminal and civil cases on his docket. He said he had checked his docket: "She has not taken one dime from a person who has any business before me or business with the city that I am aware of."

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