By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"The Dallas Morning News put it on page one, but they sure didn't report the hard-hitting part of the report," said state Representative Terry Keel, chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. Keel said the News, which carried the story of the report on its cover the day after the report's release, didn't seem to understand or want to say just how damning the report was.
The report was the product of a year-long investigation by two Texas House committees into charges Dallas had misused a "nuisance abatement" law to persecute businesses and carry out political vendettas. The law is intended to help cities clean up troubled neighborhoods by allowing municipalities to sue the owners of crime-ridden properties. In response to complaints that Dallas authorities were using the law to unfairly target innocent property owners who were themselves victimized by crime, the Legislature changed the law during the last legislative session. Now, cities must prove that the property owners they sue "knowingly" allow crimes such as prostitution and drug dealing to occur. Nevertheless, the legislative investigation found evidence Dallas still was abusing even the new law.
Keel said this week, however, that the key points in the report had less to do with the nuisance abatement program itself than with an underlying culture of corruption at Dallas City Hall.
He said his committee, working with the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, found what he called, "ward politics run amok."
"There seemed to be cronyism, and if you didn't play the game, you got retaliated against."
Keel said he felt the Morning News had allowed city officials to skirt key findings of the report by tossing them softball questions:
"They kind of let the city answer questions but not the direct questions we had posed in the report," Keel said. "First of all, [Dallas city attorney] Tom Perkins responded with what they have always said, that in all the thousands of cases only 60 resulted in lawsuits against businesses.
"What is left unsaid is the point that they were selectively targeting businesses while ignoring surrounding crime.
"The Dallas Morning News referenced the issue of off-duty employment of officers. It didn't really make it clear what the committee found. Citizens were being told that they should not expect the police to protect them, and they were scolded in some cases for calling the police. And then they were being threatened with civil action if they didn't do something about the crime. And the solution that was proposed was that you hire the police. Now, The Dallas Morning News did not make that clear."
Keel also cited the instance of a Dallas police officer who stumbled unwittingly into the middle of a lawsuit by his superiors and the city attorney against a particular apartment owner. The cop, who worked for the apartment complex off-duty, wrote a letter stating his opinion that the complex was a well-run business operated by reputable people.
The next thing the cop knew, he was under investigation by the police department's Internal Affairs Division--accused of corruption himself with his career on the line. Keel said the committee felt there was clear evidence the city attorney was using the Internal Affairs complaint process to intimidate a witness.
"The Dallas Morning News kind of glazed over it. The response [to the News] from the city was that the officer was living at that property, and that's why the city attorney complained.
"That is not what happened," Keel said. "He was one of three officers who lived at that property. He was the only one who innocently said something favorable about the business trying to fight crime, and he was retaliated against. That's a mere cover story that it was because he was living there."
Keel said the committees felt strongly enough about that particular matter that they had referred it to the Texas Bar Association, requesting that the Bar examine the case for possible ethics violation by city attorneys.
City attorney Tom Perkins told the Dallas Observer that his staff merely had passed on to the police department information that the officer in question was living in the apartment complex. He said his staff had nothing to do with instigating the Internal Affairs investigation.
Asked why his staff had passed the information on, Perkins said, "I think I have answered the question."
The report of the two committees gave high marks to Dallas police Chief David Kunkle, pointing out that Kunkle had been frank with the committees in his testimony before them, had admitted mistakes and had undertaken substantive changes in the police department to rein in the department's so-called SAFE teams, which enforce the nuisance law against problem property owners.
Two of the principal witnesses against the SAFE team operation--Gerald Henigsman, executive vice president of the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, and Chuck Space of the Southwest Car Wash Association in Austin--both told the Observer they are pleased with the changes Kunkle and City Manager Mary Suhm have put in place and are hopeful that the worst abuses will not recur.