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.

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.

He explains that the airport has enacted new, even more stringent age limits for cabs which will push many more independents out of business. The drivers suspect and fear that the same set of interests that bought Lipscomb's vote in order to put them out of business, forcing them to sell their cabs and go to work as drivers for the big companies, has shifted its focus to the airport board.

The drivers are not politically naive. They have figured out that Dallas operates on a racial plantation system in which they are not included.

"This is Central Queue," another driver interrupts. "This is not America."

That evening by telephone I reach the president of the Association of United Taxicab Operators, Tunde Obazee, a Nigerian immigrant. Obazee argues that the best evidence of ongoing corruption at City Hall has been the city council's failure to react to the testimony at the Lipscomb trial about cab regulations. "The code of silence and the code of cooperation behind the [city council] horseshoe is scary," Obazee tells me.

This isn't about history, Obazee says: It's about what's still happening today.

The new rules promulgated by the airport, he says, as well as harassment of drivers by police, amount to what he calls "a program of economic sabotage." This week's strike action by drivers against the airport has to do with this same set of issues. At bottom, it's all about the absolute certainty of the independent drivers that the new rules are part of a crooked bribe-paying scheme to push them out of business so someone higher in the plantation food chain can make more money.

Is this the part where we laugh at them again? Aren't we supposed to say, "Oh, no, not here. Not in squeaky-clean Dallas?"

Obazee understands exactly how the Dallas plantation mentality works.

Before we hang up, he says, "Al Lipscomb wrestled the white man to the ground and took the whip from him, so that he could pick it up, turn on me, and say, 'Get out of here!'"

But wait: Don't get the idea that this is all about foreign-born cab drivers versus American-born, especially African-American-born. You think that? Get in the car. Now we're going to drive back down to Dallas, to Oak Cliff, where we will have a cappuccino with John Manning at the Starbucks in the new Albertson's on West Jefferson at Hampton.

John Manning is an African-American cab driver, originally from Kansas, who recently filed suit against Floyd Richards based on Richards' testimony in the Lipscomb trial. The theory of the lawsuit is that Richards, by bribing Lipscomb, conspired to ruin the business Manning had launched in 1992.

"I bought four cabs in 1992," Manning tells me. "I bought a 1988, two 1989s and a 1992."

By leasing the cabs to other drivers, maintaining them, paying a "stand fee" to a cab company for a radio hook-up, and paying for insurance, Manning should have been able to make a profit of $200 a week per cab.

But his cabs had been in operation only six months when the council passed the age-limit rule. Manning had to sell all but the 1992, which he then had to drive himself in order to make money. Manning, who had worked as an economist in East Africa for 15 years before coming to Dallas, went from businessman to cab driver in one vote of the city council.

Lipscomb's role was especially insidious, according to the witnesses at his trial, because Lipscomb had used the race card initially to scare the council out of passing the new regulations. By buying Lipscomb, Richards bought the race card.

"I think Al Lipscomb sold the cab drivers out for a fee of about 50 cents a month each," Manning says. "I'm sorry to say this, because I like Al, but he sold us cheap to a plantation owner, because now all of the cab companies in Dallas are operating like a plantation."

Later, Manning's lawyer, Stephen R. Goetzmann of Dallas, explains to me why Manning is suing Richards but not Lipscomb or the city. Richards is "recoverable." He has pockets. "Unfortunately, it's pretty difficult to sue the city," Goetzmann says.

But guess what happens before Manning and I leave the Albertson's Starbucks in Oak Cliff? Who should walk up, hand out to say hello, big smile, kid in the shopping cart, but Oak Cliff city council member Laura Miller?

I introduce Manning. He is polite at first. Then, smiling, he asks Miller, "Miss Miller, did you get some of that money Floyd Richards paid to Al Lipscomb?"

Miller smiles right back in his face, says no, asks him why.

"I wonder," Manning says, "now that all of you on the city council know the cab laws Al got passed were crooked, how come nobody is talking about changing them?"

Miller says she thinks that's an item the council should take up.

If it does, and if federal law enforcement pursues the trail of cab and shuttle money in local and state politics, let's see how much help they all get from Lipscomb.

People say Lipscomb, who is old and sick, may die soon. If he fails to help clean up cab corruption at all levels of government before he dies, he dies dirty.

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