How vicious racial politics, mismanagement, and dirty dealing turned Dallas' Redbird Airport into a Third-World airfield

McDonald wrote to Dallas officials that he had been asked by Atkins to respond. His terse letter said the lease transfer--from the original company to the one in which Atkins had no part--was "made with corporate authority." In other words, the Days controlled both companies. He wrote, too, that Atkins had authority to act for the company in its dealings with the city. The apparent contradiction prompted a second letter to McDonald, this one from Assistant City Attorney Edward Perry.

"Your letter seems to argue that the city should not be interested in these matters," Perry wrote. "The city, in fact, should be very interested in these issues." He said that if more answers were not forthcoming, he would consider turning over the matter to "applicable authorities."

The city received no reply by Perry's deadline, and two weeks later, on October 1, 1999, it finally pulled the plug on Redbird Development Corp. In canceling the company's lease for "a consistent failure to perform its obligations," the city put these corporate questions high on its list of concerns, although the language was so filled with legal jargon that nobody except those involved could readily tell what the matter was all about. In November, when the city went to court to recover $80,000 in unpaid rent, it sued both companies, the one to which the Days and Atkins laid claim, and the one completely controlled by the Days.

Mark Graham
Redbird Airport's city-run tower, runways, and navigational aids weren't the problem. It was the facilities around them, managed by Redbird Development Corp., that caused pilots to flee.
Mark Graham
Redbird Airport's city-run tower, runways, and navigational aids weren't the problem. It was the facilities around them, managed by Redbird Development Corp., that caused pilots to flee.

Citing that lawsuit, and a countersuit Atkins filed last June, neither Aviation Director Kenneth Gwyn nor Tommy Poole, head of the department's real estate section, consented to interviews for this report. Miguez declined to return repeated calls.

Today, Atkins is out of the airport business and back with his construction company, he says. White filed for bankruptcy, and after four months out of a job, he went to work as an independent accountant.

One of the most disturbing chapters in Redbird Development's history had taken place a year before its lease was canceled; again, it involved the company's relationship with City Hall.

In the fall of 1998, Atkins met with city council member Barbara Mallory Caraway to begin negotiating a new lease, according to Atkins' lawsuit. Atkins was looking for new terms to help attract investors, and once again, he wanted a break on the rent. The council passed the new lease in March 1999, and it was signed the following May.

"Tennell is dedicated to the development and success of that airport," Mallory Caraway told the council in urging passage of a new 30-year deal. "He has lost hair. He has turned gray. He has really, really tried."

Atkins' home-district champion, Al Lipscomb, also helped behind the scenes on the new lease, letters show. But Lipscomb, in poor health and facing federal charges that he accepted bribes from a cab company owner, abstained from voting on Atkins' new lease, citing a conflict of interest. By then Atkins had signed on as the head of Lipscomb's re-election campaign.

There was nothing odd about Caraway talking to Atkins. As chair of the council's transportation and telecommunications committee, she had an interest in the city's business at Redbird.

The arrival of Caraway's husband, Dwaine Caraway, at the airport a few months later is another matter, though, one involving a clear conflict of interest and accusations of a shakedown.

Redbird's short Caraway chapter began last summer, after Atkins fell into arrears on his new rent. His new attorney, Jeffrey Tillotson, claimed in a letter to the city last February that the business had expected to yield a yearly profit of between $250,000 and $300,000 under its new lease. Although there is no way to verify those numbers, Shirley Day assured the city in her letter to Miguez that there was plenty of revenue coming in to cover the company's rent.

Nonetheless, Redbird still was not paying on time, and Atkins went out and got a loan. Over the years, he says, he had borrowed money where he could. Billy Hamilton, owner of a quick-change oil shop, says he loaned Atkins about $25,000 in 1995. He was supposed to pay it back in a year but he hasn't yet. "You know, Tennell's a brother and I'm a brother. I said, 'Here's a chance to help a brother and give somebody some ambition, some inspiration.' We'd all do well if we reach out and help," says Hamilton, who says he's still hopeful that Atkins will repay the loan. "I haven't sued him yet," he says, sounding like he never will.

Caraway says much the same sentiment led him to introduce Atkins to Vernon Jordan, the owner of an Irving construction company. "He was a struggling entrepreneur searching for assistance so he could hold onto the lease," says Caraway, a member of the Dallas park board and president of the Profile Group, an advertising and political consulting firm.

Jordan offered a $40,000 revolving line of credit to bridge the gap between the time Redbird Development's rent was due and when tenants' payments came in. They made the deal and drew up the note.

About 10 days later, Atkins says, "He [Caraway] says, 'By the way, you know, I did you the favor. There's a fee.'" Atkins says Caraway wanted $3,000. Although a fee was not discussed in advance, Atkins says, he paid it with hundred-dollar bills over three installments. "The first time it was at the office, the second time at his house, the third time was at the office," Atkins says, explaining that White drove him to Caraway's place to make the payment. Because of it, White didn't get his salary that week.

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