By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Bill Trantham is one of two Denton lawyers who forced the county and speedway to pay more than $1 million because the new interchange was built before one landowner at the site had even sold his property. Trantham, who became well acquainted with the project's history, describes the county's commissioners who approved the project as "rubes" whose heads swam with the prospect of being included among the speedway's rich and famous.
"Everybody in this county thinks that they are going to be a big deal someday. Important people. They are not just county commissioners; they are important. It's an important project," Trantham says. "Flattery, cajolery, egos and money built the entire thing."
In unincorporated areas of a county, a wet/dry distinction is decided by justice of the peace district boundaries. Commissioners, particularly Scott Armey, now regional director of the U.S. General Services Administration in Fort Worth, were receptive to the idea of making the speedway wet.
On behalf of the speedway, in 1999 commissioners created a new justice of the peace district, and early the next year the county held a special election, which ultimately made the area wet. Ninety-nine voters participated.
The district was supposed to be quickly disbanded after the alcohol election, but befuddled county officials learned they couldn't legally dissolve the district so quickly, especially after the district's residents filed to run for the newly created justice of the peace and constable offices.
Before they could dissolve the new district, commissioners learned they had to let the elected officials serve out their terms. It took four years to abandon the district with final payment of salary made in December 2002. The process cost the county $365,000, mostly in salaries and office equipment.
In April 1999, about the same time commissioners accommodated the speedway for the justice of the peace district, Carey arrived on the scene. Carey, president of RAMP Development and who did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article, was a familiar face in Denton County's political landscape. He had raised money for Commissioner Jeff Krueger's campaign, worked as a fund-raiser on Kirk Wilson's campaign for commissioner in the early 1990s, as Wilson's administrative assistant and later was hired to a newly created post of economic development director. He quit that job after allegedly offering the county's budget director tickets to the Colonial golf tournament in exchange for recommending him for a raise in 1997, an incident that was recounted in numerous published reports and confirmed by a county official. Carey was also a longtime friend of two sitting commissioners, Wilson, who had become county judge over commissioners court, and Scott Armey.
Despite the well-publicized circumstances behind Carey's previous departure from the county, commissioners hired Carey again, this time as a subcontractor to John Polster, the county's road consultant.
Commissioners said they hired Carey because he was uniquely qualified to secure a loan through the state's department of transportation for work on State Highway 121. No one publicly questioned his credentials as an expert on securing the obscure loan. But there he was ready to help the county get the loan and later to give commissioners hefty campaign donations. No one says they knew it, but Carey would be there to help the speedway get county taxpayer money for the interchange, too.
In June 1999, interchange planning was moving ahead. Speedway owners and consultants met with owners of rights of way necessary for construction. They asked landowners to donate their land for the new access roads, which not all of them wanted to do. Speedway owners and consultants were still saying that the speedway was footing most of the bill for the project. But, sometime that summer, the speedway started pushing the tab across the table toward Denton County.
Commissioners Court Judge Kirk Wilson scheduled lunches at the speedway club with speedway-area property owners and a day at the horse track with Carey. His date book from the time shows one weekday meeting with Wilson, Carey and a speedway-area developer. The subject of the meeting with Carey is Wilson's possible run for Congress. Wilson did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.
At the time, the summer of 1999, Wilson had already started spending the thousands of dollars it would take him to explore running for Congress, according to his federal campaign records. He had been the county's commissioners court judge only a few months, since April 1999.
Armey, another sitting commissioners court member with aspirations for higher office, would later run a failed campaign to replace his father, U.S. Representative Dick Armey. All the sitting commissioners intended if not for higher office, then to at least keep their jobs during the next election. Records show that all of the commissioners at the time, the fall and winter of 1999, also accepted campaign money from Carey, Gossage or speedway-area developers.