By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
That's how I feel sometimes about City Hall. Only it doesn't make me smile or speak in a soft voice.
Recently the governor of Texas and the speaker of the Texas House authorized a special investigative committee to come to Dallas toward the end of the year to look into allegations of corruption and official oppression. This is not the same thing as the recent FBI raids on Dallas City Council and Plan Commission members. This is a completely different black eye for the city--other eyeball.
The specific charges against the city have to do with a state "nuisance abatement" law that was designed to help cities crack down on crack houses, hot-sheet motels and places like that. The accusation is that Dallas has gone after legitimate businesses instead, blaming them for the terrible crime rate the city itself has failed to resolve. More specifically legislators want to know if the city has used illegitimate enforcement methods to pressure businesses into hiring Dallas cops off-duty.
In other words, has Dallas city government turned into some kind of weird municipal protection racket?
A shocking thought. But most of the reaction from City Hall has been almost blasé, as in what council member Mitchell Rasansky told The Dallas Morning News about the investigative committee. He said he thought some "liberal person" in Austin is "trying to make a name."
Yikes. May I make one thing clear? This whole animus against Dallas definitely does not come from the liberal end of the thermometer. I have written a lot about this, and, if anything, the people who agree with me tend to give me the willies. Recently a loyal reader and source called me with the news that the John Birch Society may lend its support.
I sent the Birch Society an e-mail seeking comment at the end of last week and have not heard back yet. But...the JBS...what can I say? These are not liberals. Generally, the charges against the city come from the pro-business and private property rights spots on the dial. The basic rap would be a headline saying: "Dallas: the city that hates free enterprise and private property."
I spoke to Rasansky at the end of last week. He stuck to a hard line. He cited the instance of Jim's Car Wash on Martin Luther King Boulevard, a business whose complaints earned sympathy at hearings in Austin earlier this year.
"At a car wash," Rasansky said, "if they're accumulating noise, hanging out, having music, these boom boxes at night and cars hanging out there, not getting car washes but just parked there, that's not right, and if that man [the owner] is being persecuted, that's tough."
It is tough. Dale Davenport, who owns the car wash with his father, can tell you how tough. The city of Dallas has cost Davenport and his father six-figure sums by suing them to force them to control crime in the area near and on their property.
They happen to own a car wash surrounded by vacant fields and crack houses, as well as several legitimate businesses. They're in a very tough area.
No one says the Davenports break the law. They're honest business people. They obey the law, down to and including an excellent record on building and business code issues. But the city of Dallas has been hammering them because they have failed to prevent other people from committing crimes in the vicinity.
Let me give you an example how the city hammers them. On February 9 or 10, the Davenports had an impromptu meeting at City Hall with City Manager Mary Suhm in which they pleaded with her to end the persecution of their business. They say Suhm was not unsympathetic but told them they needed to plead their case instead to city council member Leo Chaney, in whose district their car wash is located. Suhm has confirmed to me that the meeting occurred, and she confirmed the Davenports' basic version of events.
On February 11--within 48 hours of when the Davenports say they met with Suhm--five Dallas police patrol cars carried out a drug raid on their car wash at the corner of MLK Boulevard and Myrtle Street. Customers and a vehicle were searched, but no arrests were made, because no drugs were found.
The police department incident report states the raid occurred because a police officer "received a complaint regarding the possible sale of illegal narcotics at the car wash." The report says the officer drove by the car wash, saw suspicious activity and "in the interest of officer safety, called for cover elements to assist."
But after the raid an honest cop went to the Davenports on the sly and told them the whole thing had been a political set-up ordered from on high. The cop told the Davenports there was a way to track it: He said they should make a public information act demand for text messages sent back and forth between the five patrol cars.
They made the demand. Recently they received the text messages, which they showed to me. This was not a response to a 911 call. Instead, it was orchestrated from headquarters. The text messages reveal that the five patrol cars, far from rushing in to provide cover, all assembled beforehand at an agreed location a few blocks from the car wash "as per deputy chief."
Then the unnamed deputy chief, apparently running the operation by cell phone, told the officers when to "roll." At the end of the operation, one officer even complains to the others about being ordered by a deputy chief to make so many questionable drug arrests.
Let me run this back for you: The Davenports go to City Hall to ask the city manager for mercy. She directs them to a politician. Within the next 48 hours five cop cars raid their business, apparently on the basis of no real evidence. Then the cops in the raid fudge official documents to hide the role of the police hierarchy in ordering the raid.
I left messages for officer Lorne B. Ahrens, who led the raid and wrote the misleading report. He didn't call me back. I called Patricia Paulhill, the deputy chief over the Southeast Operations Division, and I left a message asking if she could explain the text messages. She didn't call back.
But let me tell you something. I don't need them to call me back. The incident report and the text messages clearly demonstrate that this was an operation orchestrated from above and not at all the ordinary enforcement activity falsely painted in the report.
I spoke with council member Chaney, who checked his calendar and told me he had been in New York on those dates. He said he had nothing to do with the raid. Suhm also said she had nothing to do with the raid.
But just look at it this way. You or I call 911 for something, we may wait hours. But Deputy Chief Paulhill can afford to tie up five patrol cars for a bogus drug raid that she apparently runs by cell phone from her desk. She's got to have a pretty powerful motivation for that, wouldn't you say?
I need to remind you of a couple other things I have already reported about the car wash and our police department. In April 2002, more than a dozen Dallas patrol cars swept onto the Davenports' lot and parked there to prevent them from doing business after the Davenports had testified against a police officer in a trial. Dallas police Chief David Kunkle confirmed the event in hearings in Austin this year.
In early June of this year, I reported that a Dallas police officer confronted the Davenports at the car wash and warned them against talking to state legislators.
Maybe I need to fill in another blank here, as well. Things like the fake drug raid in February are used by the city as legal ammunition in their lawsuit against the Davenports to prove that the Davenports have allowed a high rate of crime on their property.
Council member Chaney has confirmed to me that in at least one meeting with the Davenports he suggested they consider hiring private guards from a security company owned by council member James Fantroy. Fantroy and his security company are now targets of an FBI probe in an unrelated matter.
This is all very serious business, and it's going to get more serious toward the end of the year when that state legislative investigative committee shows up here with subpoena power and a staff.
Some people at City Hall seem to understand how serious. Last week Suhm held the first meeting of an inter-agency and community group she formed to review the city's enforcement of the nuisance abatement law.
Chief Kunkle has agreed to speak about nuisance abatement to a meeting of the Southwest Car Wash Association. That may not seem like much to you, but it means a whole lot to the car wash association. They believe they and the Davenports are getting nothing but the back of the hand from the city of Dallas, so they see Kunkle's agreement to talk to them as a good sign.
But you've still got a couple of really tough problems to deal with. One is the fact that somebody somehow can send the cops out on political raids. Call me paranoid: I think those five patrol cars were there to punish honest business people for petitioning their representatives.
The second problem is Rasansky's attitude. If the Davenports are being persecuted, tough. The worst thing is that this seems to be a fairly commonly held attitude on the Dallas City Council. Persecution is good.