By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Texas Legislature is moving toward a two-year corruption investigation focused on Dallas. Two House of Representatives committees may combine forces to look for civil rights violations, acts of official oppression, solicitation of bribery and other crimes and corruption at Dallas City Hall.
The spark for this was testimony the House heard in hearings earlier this year from witnesses who said City Hall had misused an anti-nuisance ordinance to oppress legitimate businesses, solicit work for off-duty cops and pressure businesses into paying bribes.
State Representative Terry Keel, an Austin Republican and former Travis County sheriff and assistant district attorney, says both Democrat and Republican members of the House Civil Practices Committee were "appalled" by what they found in several days of hearings into Dallas' use of a state "nuisance abatement" law.
"You have a problem in your city government," Keel told me at the end of last week, as the Legislature was rushing to close its session. "You've got a major problem right now, and it does not appear to me that the mayor of Dallas really appreciates the problem or has any incentive to get rid of it.
"In fact, she defended it."
So why are you reading about something this big here? If there were serious allegations of corruption at Dallas City Hall, wouldn't you have read a detailed account of it in The Dallas Morning News or have seen it on television?
Well, some of it has been on Dallas TV news. As for the city's only daily newspaper, don't ask me to explain what they do. They have played this story way inside, as a kind of kooky spat between lawmakers. Keel said he and other members of the committee are puzzled.
"I am really surprised that The Dallas Morning News has not really covered this as much as they should have," Keel said. "This is a major story. This is old-time corruption.
"The Dallas Morning News tried to spin this as a partisan witch hunt of some kind, and let me tell you something. This was not a partisan matter in any way, shape or form.
"The people on this bill were bipartisan. The News said it was House Republicans versus the city of Dallas. Let me tell you, Jim, that's false. Party politics didn't play any role in that investigation."
The central accusation against the city is that it misappropriated a law aimed at crack houses and hot-sheet motels and used it instead to oppress and gouge legitimate businesses. Under the guise of nuisance abatement, the city sends police SWAT teams into respectable businesses, files suit against them and engages in other scare tactics, witnesses said, in order to get things out of them.
"We had diverse businesses and individuals unconnected to each other who gave startlingly similar stories about these threats," Keel tells me. "One witness swore that he was encouraged to give a donation to a particular local official's birthday fund and on other occasions was told to hire certain people to avoid this problem."
The birthday fund reference is to testimony by car wash operator Dale Davenport ("Kickback City," May 12, 2005), who said he was urged to give money to a "birthday fund" for city Councilman Leo Chaney and to give money to other entities blessed by Chaney. Davenport also told the committee that Chaney leaned on him to hire members of the Nation of Islam, an anti-Semitic organization founded by Louis Farrakhan, as security guards for his car wash in South Dallas.
Chaney has denied to me that he ever solicited a bribe from Davenport but did concede he thinks "corporate folk that do business and earn millions of dollars in the community ought to give back."
Keel says: "We also heard sworn testimony from individuals who had been abused and in some cases had been assaulted. We heard sworn testimony that there were threats to use code enforcement authority in response to business people merely challenging the nuisance abatement law.
"Now, I can argue that this evidence at a minimum--at a minimum--shows that the city of Dallas was in essence targeting lawful businesses in high-crime areas for this type of enforcement action in an attempt to make the businesses pay for the privilege of being protected by the police.
"That is a serious problem and possibly an act of official oppression by the city itself.
"This is the only area of the state where the nuisance abatement law has been misused in this manner. This is the only city that has done this.
"I believe it is possible there were crimes here committed by city officials.
"It needs to be investigated from top to bottom. Other than the House hearings, where testimony was taken for several days, there has not been an investigation of this that's thorough. And it needs to be done, either by federal or state authorities. I think it's going to have to happen.
"I think it's possible there will be indictments that would come out of an investigation of it."
So let me say this about why the Morning News has blown this story. For once, I don't see a conspiracy. What's going on here is a simple combination of culture and incompetence.