By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It may not be Blago in Chicago, but it's definitely malice in Dallas. In fact the word that keeps popping up in relation to a master plan effort for the city's proposed inland port is shakedown.
For a long time, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and The Dallas Morning News editorial page kept saying their idea for a master plan for the southern Dallas County inland port "only makes sense."
But it didn't make sense to Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, the region's most powerful politician and a veteran of southern Dallas politics. Not good sense.
Johnson told me last week she views Commissioner Price's role, in particular, as part of a long, bad history: "I see all of these different deals that he's trying to do over the years, shaking people down and all that kind of stuff."
The inland port is an immense rail, trucking and warehousing hub being developed in Dallas and southern Dallas County by many developers, chief among them The Allen Group of San Diego. In an area long blighted by racial bias, unemployment and poverty, the inland port promises tens of thousands of new, well-paid jobs and billions in new tax base.
Johnson represents the 30th Congressional District in southern Dallas and Dallas County. She is chairperson of the House Water Resources and Environment subcommittee and is a recent past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
She said she knew what was wrong with the proposed inland port master plan the first time she heard of it. "John was making sure he put a cork in there to stop everything until they did what he wanted them to do."
Just as TAG was completing a five-year development process and was ready to begin selling and leasing property, Mayor Leppert and Commissioner Price threw their weight behind a brand-new 18-month land-use and zoning study for the project. Richard Allen, CEO of TAG, said that starting a study now would create uncertainty and drive off potential customers.
Some of those potential clients might have driven themselves all the way over to Tarrant County to hear a sales pitch from the well-connected Perot family, operators of a directly competing shipping center around Alliance Airport.
For the longest time, Leppert, Price and the News sneered at Allen's concerns, in spite of his having bought 6,000 acres of land in an area long-ignored by Dallas investors.
In prior columns, I've reported on the extraordinary lengths to which Price has gone to oppose The Allen Group project, with help from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a regional planning agency.
Last week on December 11, Leppert blinked: Chris Heinbaugh, his spokesman, confirmed for me that the mayor had withdrawn his support from the plan, at least for now.
Then this week on Monday, December 15, the NCTCOG blinked too. The agency's director told a specially convened panel of local elected officials that he was willing to drop it, as well.
I guess that leaves the News.
This has been going on: Congresswoman Johnson told me that in 2005, TAG came to her with a written proposal from a group of men who wanted to serve as TAG's "consultants" in southern Dallas.
The group consisted of Pettis Norman, a former Dallas Cowboys football player and prominent local businessman; Willis Johnson, a radio personality who was more recently the southern Dallas political consultant for Mayor Leppert; and Jon Edmonds, a former Citibank commercial loan officer and small businessman now on the staff of the Foundation for Community Empowerment. The group called itself the Service and Leadership Team, or SALT.
According to the congresswoman, the fee for SALT's services to TAG was to be "several million dollars in a three-year period." After I spoke with Johnson, Richard Allen confirmed for me that the price was to be $500,000 a year for three years and a "15 percent equity."
I asked Allen what "equity" meant in that proposal. He said he did not know. He declined further comment.
Willis Johnson and Jon Edmonds did not respond to my requests for comment. Pettis Norman did call back. He confirmed the existence and membership of the SALT group but declined to show me a copy of its proposal to TAG.
When Congresswoman Johnson read SALT's one-page proposal, she asked The Allen Group what SALT was going to do for all that money and a cut of the company. She told me last week: "They [TAG] said, 'They're supposed to be getting us out so we can know people like you.' I said, 'Well, I can tell you this. Nobody has to pay to get to know me.'"
The initial approach by SALT was made verbally. TAG asked the SALT group, cleverly, to put its proposal in writing, which it did, un-cleverly. Then TAG showed the written proposal to Johnson. Johnson then brokered a meeting of all of the principals.
Allen won't talk for the record about that meeting. Commissioner Price gave me a quite confusing version of it including a discussion of whether Allen was the target of a shakedown.
"I wasn't a part of that," he said at first, "and I don't know anything about it, so I can't speak to it." But a moment later, contradicting what he had just said, Price told me, "When everybody was in Congresswoman Johnson's office, Congresswoman Johnson said to Richard Allen—I was there in the room—'OK, if that's the case, tell the FBI.'"
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