Al's atonement

For starters, why not help undo the crooked cab laws he helped pass?

Al Lipscomb did the crime. He didn't have to do the time. Now let's see if he pays his dime.

The sentence U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall gave former Dallas City Council member Al Lipscomb last week -- showing far more mercy than Kendall was in any way required by law to give -- included a provision none of us should forget. Lipscomb, the revered civil rights leader who was convicted last January of taking bribes, was sentenced to 41 months' home confinement instead of prison with the caveat that he cooperate in ongoing federal investigations of Dallas corruption.

What corruption? I'm going to take you out to visit some very angry people who want to tell you what corruption.

The cab ordinances Al Lipscomb helped pass after he started taking bribes from Yellow Cab destroyed John Manning's business.
Peter Calvin
The cab ordinances Al Lipscomb helped pass after he started taking bribes from Yellow Cab destroyed John Manning's business.

In recent months, some people who were worried about Lipscomb's fate have tossed around the suggestion that his crimes were somehow victimless, that if there was a victim, it was he, a victim of his own poverty. Now that we know he's going to be OK, let's be sure to hose that idea off the floor.

Victimless? Get in the car. We'll take a ride. I'm going to show you victimless.

But on the way out there, let's revisit a central point in the government's effort to prove Lipscomb took bribes from Yellow Cab of Dallas.

At Lipscomb's trial in Amarillo, federal prosecutors presented tapes of Dallas City Council hearings, voting records, and many witnesses, including former Yellow Cab employees, to prove that Al Lipscomb changed his basic position on taxi regulations in the mid-1990s. As a lobbyist when he was off the council and later as a re-elected council member, Lipscomb switched from defending small independent cab operators and open competition to aggressively pushing a program of regulations designed to drive the little guys out of business and help Yellow Cab maneuver toward monopoly status.

You don't believe it? You think it's some kind of made-up accusation? Maybe you go along with the song performed by Lipscomb's lawyers -- also sung by the Dallas city manager's staff -- that all of the rule changes for taxicabs in Dallas since 1996 have been designed only to provide safer, smoother, nicer rides for the cab-using public.

So let's talk to the cab drivers. We're almost there. You know this place. It's DFW Airport. But we are headed to a part of the airport you've probably never seen.

We have to turn off here on the service drive, cork-screw around, dodge past the west tower of the Hyatt, take this little driveway where the sign tells us not to go. Just over the rise, we suddenly find ourselves in another world -- a strange, lively and secret place, a North African bazaar with its own cacophonous rhythm of engines starting, Middle Eastern music, laughter and hubbub in tin-roofed open-air shelters, card play, cabs in long lines, drivers sleeping in the heat with their windows down.

Welcome to Central Queue.

Central Queue is where the airport makes the cabbies wait before they can get in line at the terminals. I am going to walk into one of these sheds and ask what people think of Al Lipscomb.

The words are barely out of my mouth when I am surrounded by men, almost all of them immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, who are trying to wait their turns and be polite but are unable to contain themselves. A wall of men all around me is shouting, interrupting, overcome with anger -- stabbing at my note pad with their fingers, urging me to write down what they think.

Their main issue is the five-year age limit for taxicabs. According to government witnesses who had worked for Floyd Richards, former owner of Yellow Cab, Richards wanted the city to enact the five-year limit in order to push the little guys out of business. Only a big company with fleet-buying power could buy vehicles cheaply enough to make a profit on them in less than five years, the witnesses said.

The testimony at Lipscomb's trial confirmed what these struggling immigrant drivers had suspected in their bones when the age-limit debate was going on at Dallas City Hall five years ago.

"When we have a problem with the city age limit," one driver shouts above the others, "we knew somebody was bribing."

But they were laughed at. Oh no, not here, not in squeaky-clean Dallas, not bribes, not us.

Another driver cuts in: "We knew there was a crooked law. We went down to the city council, and we were all waving our money at them like this [he waves a dollar bill in my face], because we knew they were taking money."

Another driver: "We think Yellow Cab bought the city council members from South Dallas to pass the law."

I ask how they felt when Lipscomb was convicted.

"God bless America!" one man shouts. "At least we get justice for one day."

For all the anger here, there is also a code of manners and civility. Harbi Sharif-Ali Hassan, vice chairman of the drivers' union, leads me out of the pack to the lunch wagon -- a typical aluminum-sided delivery truck loaded with pimiento cheese sandwiches and grape soda, except that at the back there is also a battered metal pot full of piping strong loose-leaf tea and a bowl of sugar, elements of Islamic hospitality which he extends to me.

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