By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
All the time, I rag on people, I criticize, I say negative stuff. For a change, I want to do something positive. Problem with that: my skill set. After so long as a reporter, what else am I qualified to do?
Great idea: debt collector. A lot of it's the same--checking people out, tracking them down, ragging on them. And maybe as a debt collector I'll be better liked.
So I decide to help my city by collecting some money for it. Since I'm just starting, I think I'll do an easy one. I take on the $80,000 owed to the city by the people pushing the Trinity River project, with the bridges by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and so on. They still owe 80 grand for a big Fourth of July party they threw on a city parking lot two years ago.
I figure this should be easy, because these are all the poshies who want in on the billion-dollar-plus Trinity project. This is the same group who applauded last November when the city announced it was going to use most of the money we approved in the 1998 bond election for manmade lakes downtown to go instead for highways and things related to the highways.
The city said it had only $16 million left over for lakes after paying for the highway stuff. The poshies, who want the highways badly, said not to worry. They would privately raise the additional $55 million needed for the lakes. Ed Oakley, chairman of the city council's Trinity River committee, said in a letter to The Dallas Morning News: "Private organizations such as the Dallas Institute, the American Institute of Architects and the Trinity Commons have stepped forward to raise the dollars that we do not have."
Private groups are going to come up with $55 million to pay us back for the tax money that's going into highways instead of the lakes we voted for? That's a lot for people to swallow. So I figured I wouldn't need to do the baseball bat thing to collect a mere 80 G's. These people should pay me that much just to avoid having embarrassing questions raised.
Debt Collecting Lesson No. 1: Deadbeats do not embarrass easy.
The "Trinity Fest" Fourth of July party and fireworks "extravaganza" was the first project taken on by Trinity Commons, a private entity created in October 2001 by then-Mayor Ron Kirk. The Dallas Morning Newseditorial page gushed: "The event is a model of how private support can enhance our civic environment."
I started by calling Carol Reed, head of her own public relations company, who was hired by Trinity Commons to put on the fireworks show in 2002 and 2003. Reed told me the 80 grand was supposed to be paid for rent on a huge city-owned parking lot where the party took place. She said doing the party "almost bankrupted my company."
Lesson No. 2 for student debt collector: "Almost bankrupted" could mean dry hole. Empty pockets. Keep movin'.
I said some sympathetic stuff about how she was just hired to do the job and so on, but who was behind it? Who were the poshies?
"You're putting me in a really awkward position," Reed said. "I was retained to do Trinity Fest. You cannot expect me...I am not going to make a comment about that.
"I'm taking the bullet on this," she said. Reed said she's negotiating to satisfy the debt with "pro bono" work.
According to what the city told me, pro bono ain't going to cut it. The city has dunned Reed twice for the 80 G's. Next step could be the courthouse. But Reed still argued none of it has to do with Trinity Commons.
She explained to me that Trinity Commons did the fireworks show the first year only, in 2002. During the next year, she explained, the fireworks show was spun off into a separate legal entity called the "Trinity River Festival Foundation Inc." She sent me paperwork showing that Trinity Fest was legally "dissolved" earlier this year with no money left over.
Now we're getting into some dodgy stuff, eh? Trinity Commons sponsors the fireworks show in 2002. Financial issues arise. A separate foundation is set up and "licensed by Trinity Commons" in 2003, according to Reed, to put on that year's show. This is the part of debt collecting I love.
I was especially interested in the board of directors for the separate fireworks show entity--Ron Kirk, Craig Holcomb and Chris Luna. Former mayor, two former city council members. Three pigs in a poke, eh?
Former Mayor Kirk was explicit in telling me that the parking lot debt happened in the first year of the festival. "That actually was incurred from the first year the Trinity Festival was done," he said. "It wasn't from last year. It was a carryover."
So I'm wondering why the debt doesn't stick to Trinity Commons. If the debt came from the first year, before this second thing was formed, "Trinity Fireworks Limited Liability Double-Dodge Whatever," why shouldn't I go after Trinity Commons? They can't just hand off a debt to some new monkey business and get out of paying it, can they?