The Big Stick

Ray Hunt gets one end of it; guess which end is reserved for the rest of us

There's a difference between the short end of the stick and the long end, between how people get treated when they're well-connected and how it goes when they're not. Most of us can live with that. Within reason.

The problem at Dallas City Hall is that there's too big a difference. It just looks crooked.

Last week was a great opportunity to watch the two extremes of City Hall behavior--short end, long end. City Hall just about laid itself down in the mud as a doormat for Ray Hunt, a Dallas oil man involved in some major downtown real estate deals. The city manager, in particular, covered up an agenda item so that a huge tax abatement deal for Hunt could sneak through without anybody noticing.

If you had City Hall greased the way oil man Ray Hunt does, you'd be smiling, too.
If you had City Hall greased the way oil man Ray Hunt does, you'd be smiling, too.

It didn't happen, because the mayor blew the whistle. But after she blew it, 10 members of the city council called a press conference to talk about how totally lovable Ray Hunt is--batting their eyes, shifting their hips and making wet air kisses so much, I think they all could have been arrested on suspicion of solicitation.

That's how it goes if you're Ray Hunt, head of Hunt Oil and Woodbine Development Corp. That's the long end of the stick.

But just across downtown at the very same time, a special investigative hearing of the Texas House of Representatives was gathering a starkly different impression of how City Hall treats people at the other end. The two-day special state hearing into practices at Dallas City Hall was called because legislators in Austin last spring had heard sworn testimony about rampant civil rights violations and official oppression in Dallas--of business people.

State Representative Terry Keel, a Travis County Republican and former sheriff who was co-chair of the investigative hearing, suggested more than once in the two-day hearing that Dallas may have a deep-down case of the crookeds. Based on testimony the committee had already heard in Austin, Keel and other committee members concluded that even basic police protection in Dallas depends on how fat your checkbook is.

"It seems to be different in Dallas than anywhere else I've ever seen," Keel said at one point. "Police service has been moved from basic services to a user fee."

He said the committee had heard sworn testimony from many Dallas property owners who said they couldn't get the police to show up or take action unless they agreed to hire the cops off-duty at $30 to $60 an hour.

"The solutions proposed to individuals and businesses victimized by crime rates is that, 'You need to hire us off-duty.' And it dangerously approaches almost a protection racket," Keel said.

At another point in the hearings, Keel accused the Dallas City Attorney's Office of vindictively persecuting an honest cop to a degree he characterized as "official oppression."

In the case in point, the police officer had written a letter vouching for the good character of a business. That made the city attorney's office so mad, it filed a semi-anonymous internal affairs complaint against him suggesting that he might be on the take. Which he wasn't.

Speaking to City Attorney Tom Perkins, Keel said, "Can I just speak frankly with you? I see a pattern of witness-tampering, intimidation, attempts to make witnesses say certain things, attempts to make witnesses not testify before state committees, attempts to mislead the press and public."

The "Is Dallas Crooked?" Committee was actually a joint body of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics. The dozen or so members who traveled to Dallas from all over Texas for the hearing were not looking for simple tales of woe. They probably hear those at home all day long. What seemed to intrigue them more was how seemingly upright and honest business people can wind up in the crosshairs of Dallas City Hall.

A few of the more sophisticated witnesses--lawyers representing substantial companies or real estate holdings--signaled to the committee that there is always a game: somebody wants your property, or somebody doesn't want you to get the property you're trying to get.

True everywhere, in any city. But in Dallas the game has a way of getting played out through City Hall, maybe with Draconian enforcement, maybe with the withholding of enforcement or services or access to the council or something.

In the very last minutes of the two-day hearing, the committee members were visibly shocked when an attorney for Budget Suites of America showed them blow-up photographs of the Budget Suites Hotel on Stemmons Freeway between Mockingbird and Regal Row. For a year the city of Dallas had been telling the legislators that Dallas had to sue Budget Suites and make it the target of a vast "Safe Team" enforcement campaign because Budget Suites was running a loathsome red-light-district crack house.

The committee already had heard testimony that the Budget Suites property in fact had a much lower incidence of crime than the area around it. Dallas undercover cops, they were told, were going to other hotels dressed as prostitutes and trying to lure customers back to Budget Suites so they could bust them there and get the city's numbers up for its lawsuit. This was the same company the honest cop had written a letter for, only to get blind-sided with a career-damaging complaint.

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