By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The brick house on Good Shepherd Drive in the West Texas town of Brownwood seems an unlikely place for the headquarters of a minority-owned Dallas company with a big city contract. A wreath of plastic sunflowers hangs on the front door, two Cadillacs fill the garage, and a six-foot satellite dish peeks over the newly stained fence. Everything appears exceedingly normal here among the yuccas and prickly pears at the edge of this rural county seat 185 miles west of Dallas.
Except for one thing.
The man of the house, George Allen Day, isn't in, and he won't be coming home anytime soon. Since May, the 72-year-old former prosecutor, financier, and lifelong white male has been doing time in a federal prison camp in Beaumont, serving a four-year sentence for bank fraud, embezzlement, and other charges relating to the insider looting of the Early Bank near Brownwood, which Day owned until it failed in 1985.In a series of documents sent over several years to state corporate record-keepers, as well as letters sent to Dallas city officials and others, George Day and his wife, Shirley, claimed to own or control the company that ran southern Dallas' Redbird Airport. Never mind that the Redbird Development Corp. attained its status with the city by presenting itself as a minority-run company, getting reduced rents, low-interest loans, and other favors thanks to the support of black city council members Al Lipscomb, Sandra Crenshaw, and Don Hicks, among others.Whenever it was convenient or advantageous, the Days emerged to lay claim to a company they considered theirs.
From 1994 until late 1999, Redbird Development Corp. operated the airport's "front door," the fueling station, rental airplane hangars, and office buildings, under a long-term lease with the city. Redbird Development managed 21 acres of the general aviation field and was expected to maintain the buildings, pay the city rent, and attract new development to its open land.
Despite its proximity to downtown, its easy-to-reach location at the intersection of Interstate 20 and four-lane U.S. 67, and overcrowding at nearly every competing airport in the region, Redbird moved so little on the flight path to prosperity during the company's five-year run that users gave it a nickname: Deadbird.
The vast, empty acreage around the criss-crossing runways stands in vivid contrast to rows of charter services and computer-age aviation businesses clustered around Addison Airport, a one-runway airfield on Dallas' northern edge. "The runways and the navigational aids are there, but it's amazed me why the city wouldn't figure out what is needed to make Redbird another Addison or a junior Love Field," says Darrell Jordan, a former mayoral candidate and partner in Hughes & Luce, the law firm that represented Ross Perot Jr. in his development of Fort Worth's Alliance Airport. "You look at the potholes in the streets and the run-down hangars. Anybody surveying the area would wonder whether they're in Dallas or some Third-World country."
Why, during a decade of spectacular growth in North Texas aviation, did Redbird all but die? Why did this supposed engine for the development of minority-dominated South Oak Cliff seize up and rust?
A few of the answers can be found in six cardboard boxes piled in the back rooms of the Dallas Aviation Department offices at Love Field. These files, along with interviews with Redbird Development's officers, tenants, would-be investors, creditors, city officials, and a federal prosecutor, tell the story of the city's dealings with this ill-fated company. It is a tale of venomous racial politics, mismanagement, hidden ownership by a criminal, and blatant conflicts of interest if not outright corruption involving public officials.
During an investigation, the Dallas Observer found:
··· The city blessed Redbird Development Corp.'s takeover of the airport in 1995, even though its purported owner, Tennell Atkins, was in bankruptcy at the time. A former SMU track star and running back, Atkins used his race and connections like a good rusher uses his offensive line. Although he had no experience in aviation and no capital--he filed for personal bankruptcy in 1993, claiming about $25,000 in back taxes and mortgage and credit card debts--the Dallas City Council voted along racial lines and blessed Atkins with a big rent cut and a low-interest loan. "You got a black man out here, he's been there five months and hasn't had a chance to do anything," said then-Councilman Don Hicks, brushing aside concerns by the hangar tenants, weekend aviators with their single-engine Pipers who opposed giving the airport to a beginner with no money of his own.
··· In a little more than five years, lower-level city officials warned Redbird Development that it had defaulted on its lease more than 60 times, but it was allowed to keep operating the airport and even negotiate a new lease in 1999. The reasons for the defaults included habitually missing rent payments or bouncing rent checks, using the hangars for drug- and alcohol-fueled for-profit rave parties, and ignoring maintenance to the point where abandoned vehicles littered the property, rooftops rusted and leaked, and abandoned buildings sat filled with trash, derelict cars, and barrels of used oil. Aviation businesses moved out. Everything from a cabinet shop to a flea market moved in.
··· As complaints about Redbird Development poured in to the city, they made their way from low-level managers up the city bureaucracy to the city council. But for several years, the council took no action, because Atkins had lined up the support of former council member Al Lipscomb and other southern Dallas politicians. Atkins, in fact, ran Lipscomb's 1999 re-election campaign from the Redbird Development offices, according to Lucy Stewart, a campaign volunteer, and stored his signs and even a parade float in Redbird hangars. "Lipscomb was a good friend to have," says one mid-level city official who talked under the condition that he not be identified. "Complaints got to the council and they died there."
··· Redbird's public image as a minority-owned business served it well at the upper levels of city government. But its minority-owned status is questionable. Issues surrounding Redbird Development's corporate matters are so tangled that neither an experienced investor who looked at Redbird in 1998 nor the federal prosecutor in Lubbock who put George Day in prison say they could figure them out with certainty. The Days of Brownwood show up as "president" or "chairman" of the company in Dallas County deed records, corporate filings to the secretary of state, and franchise tax records kept by the state comptroller of public accounts. The Days themselves allege control in letters to an assistant city manager and a creditor, and in notices sent to hangar tenants in 1997 and 1999. When the city finally canceled Redbird Development's lease last October, it cited as a serious problem the company's failure to answer questions related to the Days' involvement in Redbird, questions brought to the city's attention in the summer of 1999. It was about that time, files show, that aviation department officials learned that George Day had been convicted in 1989 and 1995 of various white-collar crimes and, while on probation, was being investigated for a variety of nickel-and-dime scams designed to cheat people out of their investments.
Tennell Atkins insists he was the majority owner and president of Redbird, and that he was a Day victim, too. "I bought the corporation. I ran the corporation," says Atkins, adding that Day was "messing with the company's paperwork" to somehow steal Redbird Development from under him. His partner and operations manager, Gayle White, also says that he and Atkins ran the company. "George and Shirley Day did not take out a dime," White says.
But a string of correspondence stretching from a creditor, to the city, to Atkins, and then to a Brownwood-area attorney with whom George Day worked demonstrates an ongoing relationship among the Days, Atkins, and White. The attorney told the city that the Days indeed had control.
··· Always in some sort of need, Redbird was a magnet for opportunists looking to cash in. In a lawsuit filed in June, Atkins alleges that Dwaine Caraway, husband of city council member Barbara Mallory Caraway, demanded and received $3,000 for introducing him to Vernon Jordan, an Irving businessman who provided Atkins a $40,000 loan. Caraway denies the allegation, but White, the operations manager, told the Observer he witnessed two of the alleged three $1,000 cash payments. "He was shaking us down," says White, who claims Caraway would call Redbird Development demanding his money. Atkins and White allege that Caraway threatened to use his influence with his wife, the head of the city council's transportation committee, to hurt the company if they did not cooperate. The council member declined to comment; her husband denies making the threat or taking the money.
In all, says former council member Bob Stimson, the Redbird saga is "a typical city story." Who you are and who you know, and how the political forces line up, counted more than performance. The result, which is only now being turned around by new management, is a thatch of lawsuits and a pile of rusty buildings, a taxpayer-funded dump in need of a cleanup.
In early 1994, Cox was behind on his rent to the city and having trouble charging hangar tenants enough to make repairs. Cox says at least some of his problems came because the city was studying the possibility of closing the airport and turning it into a subdivision. "Who wants to do business with something about to shut down?" he says, explaining that he had to heavily discount rents.
Atkins, whose small construction business had done work for Cox at several area airports, approached him with a solution, Cox says. "Tennell told me, 'I have contacts in the city.' He specifically mentioned [council members] Don Hicks, Sandra Crenshaw, Barbara Mallory Caraway. He said, 'The city wants you off the airport. It's in southern Dallas, and there isn't enough minority participation.'
"He said, 'If you assign me the leases, they won't default them. In fact, they'll give me a rent reduction.' That upset me, because I had asked for a rent reduction and they turned me down."
Cox considered borrowing more money to keep the business but became so impressed with Atkins' apparent insider's knowledge of the city's plans that he decided to sell. "Maybe he was showing off," says Cox, "but he was able to call the aviation director and get him right on the phone. It would take me days to talk to the man."
To structure the sale, Cox hired George Day, an elderly airport tenant who he says introduced himself as a lawyer. Day didn't bother to mention that the State Bar of Texas suspended him in 1990 following his conviction on federal bank fraud charges in Fort Worth, Cox says. "He was from Brownwood and I grew up in [nearby] Breckenridge. He seemed like a nice guy," recalls Cox, talking in the cafeteria of an airplane mechanics' and pilots' school he built in Arlington.
Tenants at the airport remember Day as a pleasant enough white-haired man who, in shorts and black socks, would cane his way around the grounds for exercise. He lived at least part-time in an apartment on the airport grounds.
Day's strategy, says Cox, was to form a new company, Redbird Development Corp., assign it the airport leases, and sell the new company to Atkins, all of which was permitted under Cox's contract with the city.
Cox says the deal required Atkins to pay him $600,000 within a year, plus Atkins would assume responsibility for $118,000 in back rent due the city.
Atkins recalls the transaction differently. He says he bought the company for the rental debt alone, an assertion that set up a three-year legal battle over who owed what in the company transfer. Cox came away last year with an agreed judgment signed by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Massie Tillman that Atkins pay him $61,000, money that is still owed.
At City Hall, Atkins did have his political support lined up. In March 1995, Crenshaw and Hicks--as well as Lipscomb, who was campaigning to win back his seat in District 8, which includes Redbird--led a charge to reduce Atkins' annual rent by 32 percent, from $315,000 to $215,000 per year. Rather than cancel Redbird's lease over the $118,000 in overdue rent, the city gave Atkins a low-interest loan--at 6 percent--and two years to pay it off.
Business owners and others who rented space at Redbird adamantly opposed the rent reduction and its de facto seal of approval on Atkins' ownership. Atkins didn't seem to know anything about running airport facilities, and he was just what they didn't need. But Atkins was certain of one thing: Redbird had the potential to be "one hell of a deal."
"To me, you have this property here, and four, five years down the road it's gonna be a gold mine," Atkins recalls thinking. "Just hang on, and this is going to be a reliever airport to Love Field."
But several council members, including Bob Stimson, questioned Atkins' involvement, wondering behind the scenes whether Atkins was simply a facade.
"I was concerned he was a front for Cox or somebody else," says Stimson. "I was hoping for an operator who was pro-active and financially capable. Redbird Development wouldn't show us any financial information. When I asked to see their financials, Gayle White called me a racial son-of-a-bitch."
Discussion around the council table was not any more to the point.
Because most of the airport's subtenants were white, and Atkins' support on the council was mostly black, the rent reduction became an issue of why whites were opposed to giving a black man a break. Both Crenshaw and Hicks noted the opponents' race, a tape of the March 8, 1995, council meeting shows. "I commend Mr. White and Mr. Atkins for what they're doing out there," Lipscomb told the council. "A transition like this happens and people are put under a microscope. Don't buy into it."
In the end, the council approved the rent reduction on a 7-5 vote.
Tennell Atkins was in the airport business.
If the city's file of complaint letters is any indication, though, he had more problems than that.
Only two months after the city cut its rent, Redbird Development missed its payment to the city, and three months later the company began paying late every month. Within a year, after Redbird Development bounced 10 rent checks, the city aviation department put Atkins on notice it would accept only money orders or cashier's checks.
"There were problems from the beginning," says a city official who had direct control over the lease. Tenant and city staff complaints about potholes and trash began to add up in the file. Meanwhile, in direct opposition to lease requirements that the premises be used for aviation, Redbird Development began filling up the hangars with any and all comers. One of the largest hangars on the property became the home of a cabinet shop. Bus refurbishers, auto repair outfits, an air conditioning company, and a company conducting weekend flea markets and junk auctions filled some of the rest. Once, a tenant drove by an open hangar and saw men in white aprons working around a couple of tables, cutting up meat.
In early 1996, city files show, Redbird Development had found a way to generate income that had nothing to do with flying in the traditional sense. Luis Gutierrez, the city's on-site airport manager, reported to his boss that "a party of some sort" had been held on a Saturday night in one of the big hangars. The following Sunday morning, "six young people were still there cleaning up a hangar" and the airport was littered with trash, reported Gutierrez, who was in charge of city-run facilities such as the terminal building, tower, runways, and taxiways. A few months later, an off-duty sheriff's department investigator attending a meeting at an American Legion Post on the airport grounds happened upon Redbird's night life and filed a three-page report.
The gathering he witnessed was a rave, attended by at least 1,200 kids, with a live band in a hangar and plenty of beer and drugs going around. Detective Larry Oliver reported that the rave was supervised by Redbird Development operations manager White, who stationed himself near the entrance. Admission was $10 a head. "Mr. White stated that the city had endorsed the party and had no concerns with the property being used for this purpose," Oliver wrote in his report. "In fact, the city and Mr. Danny Bruce, director of aviation, were not aware of the scheduled event." The following morning, Oliver observed several youths sleeping on the hangar floor, and several plane owners reported that their aircraft had been visited during the night. One found a used condom in the pilot's seat.
Citing a host of legal violations, including underage drinking, illegal drugs, drinking on public property, curfew violations, and a lack of special use or dance hall permits, not to mention complaints from aircraft owners whose planes were moved out of the hangar to make way for the party, city officials demanded an explanation from Atkins about these "extremely serious allegations of...unsafe, illegal, inappropriate and unauthorized use" of Redbird.
Atkins replied in a letter that Oliver's report "sounds like a lie told by the intoxicated individual who identified himself as a sheriff to Gayle White on the night in question and addressed him as a 'nigger.' ...It is evident that this is another racist attempt to discredit anything that is done by Redbird Development." He said a copy of his letter and the sheriff's report "will be immediately forwarded to the proper authorities including my attorney, NAACP and my congressman."
Oliver today calls these allegations sickening and false. "He couldn't answer for his actions, so he threw up a smokescreen," the detective says. "When you don't have any defense, that's your defense."
After a stern warning by the city not to hold a rave again, the case was closed.
Over the next several years, Atkins and White hustled to fill up the hangars--with whomever--and keep abreast of the city rent payments and late fees. "They didn't know how to get aviation customers in there," says Robert Harrell, a retiree who kept several planes in the hangars and attempted in late 1998 to go into business with Redbird Development. "He [Atkins] didn't know what the hell he was doing as far as aviation goes. He just stumbled around."
The corporations and individuals who paid to store their planes and paid taxes to the city weren't shy about letting the city know that's pretty much what they thought as well.
"Redbird Development Co. is, in my opinion, the single biggest problem the airport and operators on the airport have ever dealt with to date," wrote Jay Cooper, director of flight operations for Club Marketing Services, a Duncanville concern that develops and markets food products, in a letter to the city in early 1997. On one occasion, the company plane buried a wheel in a pothole. Another Club Marketing plane was assigned to a hangar filled with trash and two large motor homes. Worse yet, the hangar door was broken and someone had broken into the plane. "I have tried on numerous occasions to reach the management at Redbird Development with no success," wrote Cooper, pleading with the city to find someone else to run the place.
Other letters complained of the constant turnover in companies managing the fueling operation, as well as leaky roofs, broken doors, and junked cars littering the grounds. Running through them is the constant theme that White or Atkins broke their word, delayed, or simply couldn't be found at their airport office.
In the summer of 1999, the volume of letters increased. Several plane owners and organizations informed the city of their futile attempts to rent hangars or office space. Inez Clark, secretary of the Texas Eagles for Aviation Mentoring, a group committed to introducing disadvantaged youth to flying, explained in a four-page letter how an office her organization had been promised was instead rented to someone using the space as an apartment. "For the past few years, we have witnessed a rapid and remarkable deterioration of Redbird airport services, the facilities and the grounds," Clark wrote. "We have seen many aviation-related businesses relocate to other airports that are sensitive to their needs and we have seen many non-aviation businesses and services move in."
Clark said the availability of rental planes and other services to private pilots deteriorated under Redbird Development. "It was just a steady decline," she says.
After getting a month-long runaround while attempting to rent hangar #39, a garage-sized structure known as a T-hangar, private pilot Jonathan Alston wrote a three-page, single-spaced letter detailing his outrage. "It infuriates me that the city that I pay taxes to willingly and knowingly contracts people of this caliber to represent them and manage city-owned property," he wrote. "The entire situation reeks of corruption at some level."
At the very least, Day's involvement in Redbird Development Corp. ensured that the company was as muddled and confused internally as it was without. The Days incorporated a second Redbird Development company in 1997, calling it First Redbird Development, then transferred the airport leases from the original corporation to the second company. Shirley Day claimed to be president of both and complicated matters even more by periodically swapping the companies' names. At worst, if Day or his wife controlled the company as they claimed at various times, it meant Redbird Development wasn't a minority firm at all--a scenario Atkins and White vigorously dispute.
"He was meddling with the paperwork," Atkins says. "George Day didn't own the corporation. George Day is a known felon. He's in jail. This isn't the first corporation he wrote letters for. Did George Day control Redbird Development Corp.? The answer is no. Did George Day own any Redbird Development stock? The answer is no."
Gayle White, however, admits that ShirleyDay owned a piece of Redbird Development. And later in an interview, Atkins concedes that Shirley Day had a 16-percent ownership stake.
According to a document White and Atkins signed in 1997, Gayle White owned another 49 percent. Even though the numbers don't add up, Atkins insists he's the majority owner.
How Shirley Day came to own her shares is anyone's guess. "Gayle gave her some stock," Atkins says. But White says he doesn't know how Day obtained her shares. "That was back...when the corporation was formed, I think some promises were made. But I'm just guessing there."
Those answers are murky at best, but the only other people who'd know don't want to talk. Neither Day, who, through a prison official, turned down a request for an interview nor his wife in Brownwood would comment for this report.
For Day, toying with a little company like Redbird must have been a comedown from his former life.
A retired Army colonel who served in the Judge Advocate General's corps and once was elected district attorney in Brown County, Day was a politically active, well-connected bank and mortgage company owner in Fort Worth. He had longtime connections in the Democratic Party going back to the LBJ-Connally days. Former House Speaker Jim Wright was among those who vouched for Day's character after his conviction in 1995 on charges related to insider dealing at the Early Bank, located just outside Brownwood, which Day owned.
When the bank failed in 1985, state regulators cited "liberal and ill-advised loans" to Day and his friends that caused losses "far exceeding the bank's total capital and reserves." Federal regulators, investigators, and prosecutors took nearly a decade to take Day to court. "The FDIC took a number of years to pass this along," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Sucsy. "Like everything else George Day is involved in, it was a complicated case."
At least some of the seven fraud and embezzlement counts against Day involved his cleaning up bad loans to his own businesses, including a company called Too Cheap Car Rental, without actually paying back the loans, Sucsy explained. Day simply started a new company, gave it a fresh loan backed by little collateral--a few old cars and a piece of undeveloped land--and at least for a while, it looked on the books like nobody was in default. A jury found Day guilty, but the judge suspended his $30,000 fine and four-year sentence and put him on probation for five years. He had been found guilty on bank fraud charges six years earlier in connection with his activities at another bank he owned in a Fort Worth suburb.
As was later revealed at his probation revocation hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Sam Cummings in Lubbock last May, Day didn't tell his probation officer that he claimed to be in charge of Redbird Development and was negotiating with tenants and would-be investors on the company's behalf. He was required to report his employment, property ownership, and business dealings.
That, and a list of 18 other violations, including a few continuing scams, prompted Sucsy to push to revoke Day's probation at the hearing in Lubbock. "You can say we were beating a dead horse, but complaints [about Day] kept coming in," the prosecutor says. In one swindle, Day gave a man a corporation and a piece of mortgaged property. After the investor paid off the loan, he learned the company was never legally his.
Most of the public documents involving the Days and Redbird are signed by Shirley Day. But according to Sucsy's motion to revoke Day's probation, her name often appeared on documents involving her husband's business, matters Sucsy says she knew little about.
Day had good reason to keep his business affairs out of his name. He owed nearly $23,000 in criminal restitution, having paid only $2,000 in four years. He reported more than $6.7 million in outstanding civil court judgments against him on his court-supervised financial disclosure forms. The IRS had hit him with $399,000 in tax liens.
In corporate records filed in Austin and Dallas, the Days claimed various executive posts in Redbird and the second company, titles such as chairman, director, and president. On at least two other occasions, Atkins filed the papers through an attorney of his own. He also identified himself as company president.
"We never could figure it out," recalls Bruce Leadbetter, a successful businessman who helped start Legend Airlines at Love Field. Beginning in early 1998, Leadbetter and other experienced investors, including a group involving Darrell Jordan of Hughes & Luce, considered making six-figure investments in Redbird and bringing it out of its underdeveloped funk.
"The only way you would get involved, the only way anyone would finance it, was to start a new company. If you didn't, you wouldn't know who [a would-be owner or creditor] might jump up," says Leadbetter, who says he thought Atkins had been trapped in an uneconomical lease.
Leadbetter, who eventually dropped away, says Atkins was "not a businessman, but we thought he worked pretty hard."
Indeed, Atkins says he paid no attention to his own company's filings in Austin. After only a year under Atkins' management, the company neglected to file a corporate franchise tax report, and for more than a year it was officially defunct. State records show Day started it back up.
Sucsy, too, says his investigation of Day and Redbird, which included interviewing Atkins and White, yielded no clear answers on who owned the company. "It was bizarre," he says. "There were a lot of twists and turns."
It made no sense to him that the Days kept popping up in significant ways, claiming control in letters to tenants and remaining on the premises in an apartment well after Atkins and White became aware of what the Days had done.
If the Days were such meddlers, Sucsy can't understand why Atkins and White continued to associate with them. "I wouldn't have wanted him around after that. I would have wanted him as far away as possible," the prosecutor says.
Atkins won't address that issue, and gets indignant over questions about Day. "This perturbs me," he says. "This is the same thing I went through with my tenants."
Pressed on why he didn't take some action against what he portrays as a paperwork coup, Atkins replies, "If I went out and sued everybody who meddled in Redbird Development Corp., it would be a long list of people to be sued."
Not only did Atkins not shun the Days, though, he tapped one of their long-time friends in Brownwood, lawyer Charles McDonald, to explain to the city the confusing ownership picture once the city started asking some hard questions last year.
The interesting chain of events began in July 1999, when Shirley Day posted a letter that rang alarm bells at Dallas City Hall. It was addressed to Assistant City Manager Ramon Miguez, who oversees the city's aviation department. Written on letterhead listing the house in Brownwood as Redbird Development's corporate address and Shirley as president, it announced the company "has made profound changes in its corporate operations...Mr. Gayle White has been placed in full control as operations manager...Please do not direct any future mail to Tennell Atkins, as he is no longer in the collection or payment position." Highlighting one of the implications of Atkins' ouster, she assured Miguez, "The company remains a minority-owned company and we contemplate bringing in additional Hispanics and Afro-Americans."
At the city, a thick file on the matter shows that within days an assistant city attorney got to work researching Redbird's past letters to the city and corporate filings, the ones chock-full of the Days' names, while aviation department staff began compiling George Day's criminal history.
Around the same time, Jack Cox, the former owner, sent city officials a copy of a letter in which Shirley Day told him that a $61,000 civil court judgment he had secured against the company and Atkins was worthless. She explained to him that two Redbird corporations existed, and he'd obtained his judgment from the wrong one. Of the new company, she wrote to Cox, "Mr. Atkins holds no ownership in this company, nor any position, and never has since its inception." She was telling Cox, in effect, tough luck.
That dodge, and the contention in Day's letter that Atkins was out of power, prompted the city to write Atkins for an explanation.
A response came a week later from Charles McDonald, a lawyer in Bangs, Texas, a town of 2,000 near Brownwood. While under suspension by the Bar, Day worked as a law clerk for McDonald, according to the government's allegations in Day's revocation. "We had witnesses who said his car was frequently there," Sucsy says. And Day testified in an unrelated civil case that he worked as McDonald's clerk.
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.
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.
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.
White confirms the payments and the details of how they were made. "It was cash in the palm--we couldn't afford envelopes," White says, somewhat facetiously. "He'd call asking for his money. I wanted to knock him in his head."
Atkins and White say that Barbara Mallory Caraway accompanied her husband to a meeting about Jordan's interest in the company, although neither could recall anything she said. "We did have a meeting with Barbara, Dwaine, Jordan, and White. That meeting was to let her know that Vernon Jordan was involved, that he might want to go forward as an investor down the road, that we do have a guy with financial backing. Her husband called the meeting. It was at my office.
"I guess she came in support of Vernon Jordan and Dwaine, to confirm what was going on," Atkins says. "It was a show of power, I guess."
White says Jordan "would lend the money if Tennell would grant him the exclusive right to any development work we'd do out there. She let us know that that was a good idea." (Jordan could not be reached for comment. He and Atkins settled their legal claim out of court last month. The terms were not specified.)
White and Atkins say Caraway would boast of his clout, telling them during one visit to the Redbird office, "I sleep with the city."
Caraway says the accusations of a shake-down and the boasts are "absolutely false," and that his wife was never involved in his dealings with Redbird. Citing a pending lawsuit, in which she is not named, Barbara Mallory Caraway declined comment. She told a reporter when the lawsuit was filed, "All I ever tried to do was help him. I am very disappointed that in my attempts to help him, he is trying to drag me into something that is not true."
In Atkins' view, she was the reason he lost his lease.
Jordan and his company, DFW Contractors Inc., paid Redbird's city rent in July and August, but by early September there was a falling-out. Dwaine Caraway says Atkins had overstated his revenues and his collateral for the loan, which was backed by a list of tenants. "Some of these had prepaid for years," Caraway says. Atkins says Jordan and Caraway were trying to muscle in on the business and take over.
Whatever the reason, Dwaine Caraway wrote Atkins a letter on September 15, 1999, "to express my extreme disappointment in your unprofessional behavior and lack of business courtesy. I have given my time and effort to help you and Redbird Development Corporation...You lied and defrauded your position and you failed to communicate...I am tired of your lack of respect and regret that I wasted my time."
The letter notes that it was copied over to the entire city council, the aviation department, a minister, and former council member Don Hicks, although Caraway says those copies were never made or sent. That same day, Atkins says, Caraway told him, "I'm on my way...to City Hall to have RDC's lease terminated." Atkins alleges that Caraway's letter and actions were the driving force behind the company losing its lease two weeks later. "The letter was calculated to cause, and did cause the city of Dallas to terminate the Redbird Airport lease," Atkins' lawsuit asserts.
There were other gears spinning around at the time that could make that claim difficult to prove. Just a week before the city kicked out Atkins, WFAA-Channel 8 aired a lead story about the physical decay of Redbird. It was so embarrassing--footage of people sleeping in the offices, piles of junk, tattered signs, and potholes--that city staffers wrote the council a memo explaining what was being done. There were the pending questions, too, about the multiple corporations and George Day, and another letter from Miguez in late July that accused Redbird Development of doing little to improve the airport during its five years at the controls.
There had been threatening letters before. And piles of junk. And guys sleeping in the hangars. Atkins had survived them.
But there was a difference this time--or so Atkins' lawsuit says.
This time, Barbara Mallory Caraway's husband was denouncing Atkins in the harshest words, and this counted most. Atkins had lost his juice downtown.
The city's new strategy is to divide the airport into smaller parts and lease them to companies with demonstrable capital and specific plans. "That's the Redbird story you should tell," one aviation department official says, adding that some new investment has begun to flow. One company has taken over the former cabinet shop and turned it into the base of a charter service. Another is bringing in an airplane dealership and a new fueling operation.
As part of the new wave, Kilgore and his partner, Dennis Sorber, owners of Dallas Aircraft Services Inc., signed a long-term lease with the city to run part of Redbird Development's former territory: the fueling station and more than 120 garage-sized hangars, where most hobbyists' planes are stored. On a recent visit, the area was outwardly neat and orderly. A roster shows the hangars are filled with planes. "Not a week goes by that we don't talk to people who want to come here," Kilgore says. "There's a good future here. There are a lot of people who want to build corporate hangars here and move in their $4 million jets."
Despite the interest, and a lot of talk at City Hall about Redbird as a catalyst for the area's economy, Kilgore and Sorber say the city is doing as little as it can to push their efforts along.
Says Sorber, referring to one of the breaks afforded their predecessor, "We plan to live up to our lease, but nobody is out there lending us money at 6 percent.
"I could create 25 new jobs tomorrow. My staff makes upwards of $25 an hour. But when I went to the city to see what they could do for me--could they abate my personal property taxes? Well, if I filled out a pile of paperwork and exercised everything they were offering, it added up to about a thousand bucks."
Kilgore says he, too, wonders what it will take for the city to get behind efforts to turn the airport around.
The ramps between the hangars on their leasehold have been built up with patches so many times over the years, water runs off into the buildings, he says. There are federal funds available for repaving work, but Kilgore says that he can't go after them as a private company. The city must apply.
"We're gonna have to get extremely political to get the city to do something," Kilgore says. "Nothing will happen without some prompting."
His partner agrees. "That's politics. But sometimes you need to hold that up for everybody to see."