By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
D'Angelo Lee is meeeeelting.
If anybody looks like a central figure in the FBI raids on Dallas city officials, it's he. Lee. But he's disappeeeearing. Nobody knows him.
Two weeks ago when the FBI swarmed City Hall with search warrants, Lee was one of three top city officials whose vehicles and offices were tossed by agents in a bribery corruption probe linked to tax-subsidized apartment projects.
Lee is a member of the Dallas City Plan Commission, which happens to be the second-most powerful body at City Hall. I have before me a document depicting Mr. Lee as a well-favored figure. Dated June 16, 2005, it shows Lee was nominated to sit on a very obscure but powerful city body called "RZ09-Reinvestment Zone Nine Board."
You've never heard of it. I've never heard of it. But during its brief tenure, RZ09 will distribute more moolah than some small cities see in a decade--tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of tax dollars handed out by the city as incentives to real estate developers in the blighted Vickery/Meadows area.
Pretty powerful. You could make some things happen on that board. Such an appointment would make Lee especially powerful, given his position already on the city plan commission.
As a plan commissioner he will vote on any developments in Vickery/Meadows that require new zoning. And as a member of the board of the obscure RZ09, he would be able to influence lucrative funding for those same projects.
You could almost call it a conflict of interest, couldn't you? Especially since Lee, a man whose means of support is not something I have been able to understand, has been huckstering himself all over town as a potential partner on tax-subsidized development deals.
Lee's background, according to documents filed with the city, is as a Wall Street analyst and minister. Now, this may be bias on my part, I know: But if I ask a guy what he does, and he tells me he's a Wall Street analyst and minister, my instinct is to run for my car. But Lee, instead, was appointed to our city plan commission two years ago by Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hicks.
And then here, according to this June 16, 2005, document on my desk, the same Mr. Lee is being nominated to RZ09 by Dallas city Councilman Gary Griffith. Now, let's not move ahead one quarter-inch before I tell you that Griffith says he flat out definitely did not nominate Lee.
I asked Griffith why the document initially circulated to the council showed him as nominating Lee. Griffith said several times, "I can shed no light on that.
"I have never talked to Mr. Lee about it, nor have I asked him to submit an application, nor do I believe he is qualified to serve, because he's not."
Griffith told me he was unaware of any list or page showing him as nominating D'Angelo Lee.
The full document with the page showing Griffith as Lee's sponsor was called "Status of Reinvestment Boards," assembled and distributed to the city council on June 17. Of course, a mere three days later the FBI descended on city offices and Lee's home and car with sealed search warrants in a wide-ranging corruption/bribery probe.
The very next day, page 58 of the city secretary's document, showing Griffith as nominating Lee, disappeared from everybody's packet. On June 21 when reporters asked for the full document, page 58 was missing. The document skipped from page 57 to page 59. (Whatever else may be going on here, I am confident this is not a CIA operation.)
Then on June 24, City Secretary Shirley Acy distributed a new document with a new page that did not show Lee as a nominee. But you see, I still had the original page 58: After it was expunged, a copy of page 58 appeared mysteriously one day in my hand. It must have floated down from heaven like the gentle rain.
Anyway, I took my page 58 to Acy's office and asked her why she had expunged it and then replaced it with a new one. She said Griffith had asked her to. Pointing to my page 58, Acy told me: "He said that these individuals were given to him, and he asked us to remove these names, because although he turned their résumés in, they were not his nominees."
Does this mean Gary Griffith is a secret ally of D'Angelo Lee? Naaaah. I tend to believe Griffith's story, even if the precise handling of the documents remains fuzzy. The bottom line is that D'Angelo Lee can find a way to get himself appointed to positions at Dallas City Hall where he can help hand out tens of millions of dollars in tax money and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars in zoning value to developers. And what does that tell you about Dallas City Hall?
Let me ask you something: Could you go downtown and get yourself slipped onto the board of RZ09 without the knowledge of the council member who is supposed to be nominating you? No, neither could I. Nor would we try, right? But a special kind of guy maybe could, somebody with a background in Wall Street analysis, theology and "real estate finance," according to documents at City Hall.
I tried to see where some of the real estate finance experience might have come from. I learned that Lee was involved at an early age in the debt collection business in Los Angeles.
I came across references to an unfortunate event in 1986 in which Lee, then 22 years old, was one of several men accused of loan sharking, extortion, theft and trying to collect a debt with a gun. Lee appears to have been charged only with robbery, of which he was acquitted.
I spoke with the complainant, Merv Evans, a familiar figure and perennial candidate for public office in L.A., who was very forgiving of Lee for his role in what Evans shrugged off as "a little ass-kicking."
"They were upset by the fact that I had got $5,000 from them and hadn't paid them back," Evans told me. He said Lee was the least involved of the lot. "He was like a nervous didn't-want-to-be-there kind of guy."
With the advantage of years and maturity, Evans is more inclined to blame himself for the entire matter than Lee. "I clearly admit that I beat them out of their $5,000. I took a little ass-kicking, but nothing serious. I'm still walking around today. I still got the $5,000!"
Evans said of the others accused in the matter--not Lee but his associates--that they were drug dealers: "They were dealers in Englewood, California. They were dope dealers. And I knew they were dealers, OK?
"The fellow you're talking about [Lee], I believe that he probably was in over his head and didn't realize what was happening. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. It's the other guy that hit me."
What a sport. If he ever gets tired of running for office in L.A., I think we could use Merv Evans here. What do you think: plan commission?
I spoke with Lee's attorney, Larry Jarrett, who said he and his client would have no comment on the business in California or any other matter.
Here's my other radar check on D'Angelo Lee. My very astute intern, Robyn Curts, a 16-year-old DISD student, attended a plan commission meeting last May and then dropped by the Dallas Observer to report. She told me that most of the meeting had been pretty dull--a useful lesson, I thought, for an intern to acquire.
I always tell the kids: If it's excitement you're looking for, glamour, danger, risk and adventure, the highs, the lows, the adrenaline rush, go into real estate.
Robyn did mention that one member of the body seemed to be strikingly...I'm trying to think of how to put this because I don't remember her exact phrase, and she's not a person who uses mean words (yet)...I could say she described this person as dramatically non-astute.
She said the board member in question was beating up on the owner of a nightclub, accusing him of outrageously operating his den of iniquity on Sundays. He based his accusation on several police reports describing bad behavior at or near the club on Sundays.
Before the board member in question was able to get too far into this hole, another member at his elbow leaned forward and whispered audibly that the pertinent offenses, although showing up as occurring on Sundays, actually involved closing time on Saturday nights.
Last week I went to City Hall and listened to the tapes just to make sure. And yes. The Sunday den-of-iniquity exchange had involved D'Angelo Lee.
"Most of the reports that we have here are all on Sundays," he said accusingly. "There are a couple of Saturdays, but most of them are Sundays."
I could even hear plan commission member Neil Emmons, who sits next to Lee, whispering hoarsely, "Saturday night...Saturday night."
Put a gold star over the name of Robyn Curts. She may be only 16, but she can already spot one when she sees one.
So what's my point here? Do I just want you to be depressed? OK, let's be honest about that. Yes. I believe it is our civic duty as citizens of Dallas to be deeply, deeply, possibly even clinically depressed about the state of things at City Hall.
By the way, I forget: Did I remember to thank Elaine Agather of the Dallas Citizens Council and former council members Alan Walne and Max Wells for their help in the recent defeat at the polls of the only shot at meaningful reform this city will ever see for the next 10 to 20 years? Yes, I think I did. I think I thanked them last week, but I can never repeat it enough.
When you think FBI raid at City Hall, think Elaine Agather. When you think D'Angelo Lee, think Elaine Agather.
Life is choices. Our choices were a charter change establishing a strong-mayor system instead of what we have now. Or what we have now.
OK, I'm depressed.