By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Let me give you another example of what I'm trying to get at. When Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert ran for office, his top campaign consultant in southern Dallas was Willis Johnson, a radio personality on KKDA-104 FM and a businessman with diverse interests. I knew that Johnson had lucrative contracts with DART, some of which Lynn Flint Shaw had a hand in, and I wanted to know more about them. Shaw, by the way, was another major player on Leppert's campaign team.
I filed an open records request for contracts, specifically including so-called "third-tier" contracts like Johnson's. After much grinding of wheels, DART did produce thousands of pages of documents for me to peruse, one of which was a computer search purporting to show that none of Johnson's companies had contracts with DART.
The problem was that I had already seen descriptions of his contracts from other sources, including Johnson's own Web pages. And I had discussed them with Johnson on the phone. I told Johnson I was having a hard time getting DART to admit that it had any contracts with him. He agreed to talk about the contracts.
"There's no mystery to me," he said. "My company is a telecom company." He said he won a competitive bid to supply DART with two-way radios and other communications systems, "in August of 2006, before I ever heard of Tom Leppert, period." He said he had won no new contracts since Leppert's election.
So what's with DART? Why all the implacable stone-walling and the snowdrifts of paper and the so-called computer searches, all designed to hide the ball?
Why is it always DART's instinct to shrink from public scrutiny? And I'm not talking only about DART staff here. The members of the DART board of directors have some very bad habits, where candor and transparency are concerned—so much so that one wonders if the culture at DART may not seep down from the top.
For instance: You've heard all about their billion-dollar goof in the budget by now. The story is supposed to be that the DART board had no idea at all that the agency only has half the amount of money it's going to need to build two new rail lines promised to the suburbs of Irving and Rowlett.
Last week, DART's internal auditor director, Albert Bazis, gave the board his report on why the board got sandbagged with the news about the billion-dollar shortfall. DART president Gary Thomas "announced" it to the board last November, according to Bazis. (By the way, that happened a few weeks after I filed my open records request looking for evidence of the shortfall.)
While Bazis spoke, all the board members except Velasco sat there nodding and holding up their hands helplessly in the universal gesture of who knew?
The documents I did get my hands on show that the board knew by July of last year that major components of its rail plan had increased in cost by 68 percent and 85 percent—more than enough to signal to them that the overall plan was funded at half what it was going to cost to build.
There's a very important game being played here. The suburbs know all about the shortfall. They want to get their projects out to bid and under contract before the Dallas projects. That way the suburban projects will have first dibs on the money, and Dallas will have to go fish.
While Leppert's pal Shaw was busy advising Deloitte Touche on how to get black high school kids into accounting, she seems to have missed the whole game about the suburban lines. As has Leppert, apparently. Now Dallas is probably screwed.
When Dallas' two new lines come up—downtown and in South Oak Cliff—Dallas will have to go hat in hand and beg the suburbs to vote for the money. Good luck.
The suburban board members have been screaming about all the taxes they have poured into DART over the decades without getting their rail lines built. What they don't want to talk about is the $192 million they sucked back out of DART in so-called "local assistance" funds during those same years, which they used on their own street repairs. Hey, I could use some street repairs in my neighborhood in East Dallas.
Here's the problem. Everybody at DART, from the board on down, has some kind of game going and a reason not to talk about it. At least at City Hall when we run into this stuff, we can vote people out of office.
But DART is a kingdom unto itself—the kingdom of tricks and whispers. And do you know what their next big trick is? They want to get the Legislature to change the law so we taxpayers won't even be able to vote on DART bond issues anymore.
Oh, that's just what we need. More insulation from the voters. Then maybe the whole board can get secret contracts. They could advise Deloitte Touche on how accountants can have more fun. Tricks, whispers and whoopee.