By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Normally I devote more of my energy to reporting than pontificating. I know this works a hardship on people out there who crack one eye open in the morning and wonder: "What is Jim Schutze's two-bit opinion today?" But, you two-bit opinion-starved devils, this is your week. This week's column is my annual end-of-the-year rant and rave.
First order of business: rant.
I can't believe The Dallas Morning News let themselves get PC-hoodooed into doing that front-page story a couple weeks ago about Mayor Laura Miller and apartment developer Brian Potashnik.
No, wait. That's a lie. I can believe it.
In case you missed it, I recap: The News reported that Miller has received a lot of campaign contribution money from Potashnik, whose name has come up often in an ongoing FBI probe of bribery and corruption charges at City Hall.
I've been in this business a long time. Not only are you supposed to tell people something new, but when you put a story on page one with a big headline ("TIES TO DEVELOPER DON'T HURT MILLER"), there's a strong implied assumption that you are telling them something new and major. For all the spin they may have tried to put on that headline, the body language of newspapers dictates that the headline really means, "MILLER A SLICK DIRTBALL."
Another transparent logic is at work here. If the ties don't hurt her, what's the story? The implicit story is that the ties do hurt other people, and the Morning News gets to that later on. They report dutifully that some people think the FBI probe is racist because subpoenas and searches have been directed at all of the black council members who have ties to Potashnik but not at Miller, who is white.
That stuff's been going around City Hall for months. It was Maxine Thornton-Reese, a black southern Dallas council member, who said during a council meeting that it was racist for the FBI to search the automobiles of black council members and not search the automobiles of white members. She specifically called for a search of Miller's car to ensure racial equity.
Here's what's wrong with this idea, as the basis for an FBI search and as the basis for a front-page story in The Dallas Morning News:
The cops search people because they think those people broke the law or because they think those people may know something about somebody else who broke the law. The police really are not supposed to search people in order to make other people whom they have searched feel better.
Remember, too, that we have no idea how a federal case against Dallas council members will play out if a prosecution ever does materialize. A bribery case is one thing--Potashnik accused of going out hunting for influence with his checkbook, seducing otherwise virginal members of the council.
But the vibes I get tell me this case could easily go the other way--an extortion case in which Potashnik is pretty much a straight-up business guy looking for political help. If it's the latter, then the whole story is in how officials responded when Potashnik went to them.
Accepting legal campaign contributions from him--not tied to any tit-for-tat agreement on official votes--is not against the law.
Telling him you won't vote for him unless he tosses a big cement contract to your girlfriend is against the law.
Not against the law. Against the law. Is this really such an obscure distinction?
I never quite understand just what it is that we don't get here. I used to hear this stuff when Miller's predecessor, Ron Kirk, was in office and former council member Al Lipscomb was about to go to trial on federal bribery corruption charges. People would ask, "What's the difference between Ron Kirk being given a partnership in a major law firm and Al Lipscomb being given cash in brown envelopes?"
My first response was always, "What do you even mean, what's the difference?"
Same difference as buying a car from a dealership at noon and stealing one off the lot at midnight. Same difference as a tailor and a pickpocket. I could go on.
One is against the law. The other not. They make you partner in a big law firm, you call your mom. They indict you for bribery corruption, you call your lawyer.
I am all for stories about influence. I have written lots of them. If you want to compare Miller's list of legal campaign contributions with the lists for the black council members and then see what you can deduce about who backs whom financially, I am ready and willing to help. But you have to do apples and apples.
The Morning News let itself get browbeaten into doing a stupid story, and it happened because the News, as an institution, is still rife with old-fashioned Dallas white-people fearfulness about race. They lacked the spine to tell the people pushing for this story: "Legal contributions to the mayor's campaigns cannot be presented as equivalent in any way to allegations of bribery and corruption."