By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
With help from Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, The Dallas Morning News has been painting the developer of the city's inland port shipping and warehousing center as a racist.
In a story in the paper on April 12, Morris was quoted as saying he had tried unsuccessfully to help Richard Allen, chief executive officer of the Allen Group, get over his problem of racial insensitivity:
"I said, 'Be sensitive to minority contracting.' They seemed very naïve about it, to my surprise," Morris said. "I think they had no sensitivity to this subject.
"I don't think to this day he [Allen] understands why minority firms should be used."
The reporters who wrote the story, Gromer Jeffers Jr. and Kevin Krause, stated as undisputed fact that, "Allen, who is white, appeared blind to the county's complicated racial politics."
In an editorial April 16, the Morning News said a lesson must be learned from Allen's involvement in southern Dallas: "Going forward, white-dominated companies must keep foremost in mind the unique history of southern Dallas. It is not simply a great business opportunity to be exploited for maximum profit."
Buried in the story by Krause and Jeffers was the fact that state Senator Royce West, who represents the district where the inland port is being built, had attempted to become a consultant to Allen in a deal that would have paid out $1.5 million and 15 percent equity in Allen's company.
The fact is this: Richard Allen has a far better record on minority participation in his project than local Dallas companies and even local units of government. On projects such as the Wintergreen Road Bridge in Hutchins two years ago, Allen's minority participation was 55 percent, versus the county's contractor, a prominent local firm whose minority participation on the project was 4.9 percent.
Morris' North Central Texas Council of Governments tries to hit a goal of 13 percent minority participation. Allen does four times better than that on some projects.
Allen's family has been in business in California, Ohio and elsewhere for decades. In the fall of 2006, Allen provided West, Morris and Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price with a long list of references including several members of Congress, judges and community leaders in California and Ohio. Allen promised not to call any of them in advance and then asked the three men to check with these references, seeking any evidence, hint or whisper that Allen has been racially insensitive.
Does that sound like a guy with a racist past to hide? No one has ever produced a shred of evidence from his past to indicate he is.
The second big reality to confront in the Morning News editorial is the finger-wagging warning that Allen must not come into southern Dallas and expect to carry off unconscionable wealth.
What unconscionable wealth? Southern Dallas has been a bitterly benighted wasteland since Reconstruction, plagued by sky-high unemployment, poverty and lack of education. Where's the diamond mine?
Allen has said publicly that he has sold off most of his holdings in California and reinvested the lion's share of his family's wealth in southern Dallas and Dallas County in order to create one of the nation's biggest rail, truck and warehousing hubs. For all the pompous Lady Bountiful posturing on the Morning News editorial page about helping southern Dallas become less poor by picking up litter, the fact is that no local investor has ever shown the faith in southern Dallas that Allen has.
His project, according to city of Dallas estimates, promises 60,000 new jobs and billions of dollars in tax base in a venue that white Dallas has given nothing but the back of the hand for a century and a half. It's outrageous, obscene, upside-down—some kind of crazy—for the Morning News to call Allen a racist.
Most of the Morning News story, reported over two months by a two-man team, went back over ground that the Observer has been reporting since last year. They disparaged our coverage. That's OK. I disparage them a little sometimes too.
Jeffers and Krause did bring new facts to the table, for which they deserve credit. But because I have worked on this story a lot myself, I couldn't help being struck by the things they carefully walked around and did not touch.
Foremost of these is the open derision that Price has expressed in letters, on radio shows and in interviews with me for the new jobs promised by Allen's project.
In a letter to Allen dated March 29, 2006, Price virtually spat on Allen's promise of 60,000 well-paid jobs with benefits, telling him, "During slavery everybody had a job."
I have argued with Price over this point in some detail, as I did for a column published last December 10. I told him I thought it was wrong, historically and morally, to conflate honest, paid labor by which a poor man may pull himself up in the world with forced labor under African slavery.
"Slavery, Jim," he said, "that's an institution. And the effort of the institution was working. And working traditionally is a job.
"I am going to tell you," he said, "the nickname that most African-Americans have for a job. It's called a slave."
Price has made similar remarks in public. You can go to our news blog online, Unfair Park, and search for the word "negroes" (Price's derisive term for black people who work at jobs). You will hear audio of him espousing the view that work is shameful.
Nobody ever accused Allen of racism—in fact it was all open arms, welcome to town, and hugs and kisses—until December 2005 when Allen turned down a proposal from three black businessmen seeking to become his political consultants. The three were Pettis Norman, a former Dallas Cowboys football player and businessman; Jon Edmonds, a businessman associated with former Trammell Crow Co. chairman J. McDonald Williams; and Willis Johnson, a radio personality with lucrative contracts at DART, the city of Dallas and Dallas schools, who also happens to be Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert's lead political consultant for black Dallas.
Calling themselves the SALT Group, these three asked Allen for $1.5 million and a 15 percent cut of his company in exchange for helping him with local politics and for other considerations to be negotiated. Allen said no.
The Krause/Jeffers story reported it was Royce West who sent Pettis Norman to Allen in the first place. The News reported that, "West had recommended Norman to Allen." They also said in their story, "When West asked to join SALT, Norman said he wanted to avoid any appearance of a conflict and convinced the senator that it wouldn't be a good idea."
That's dropped into their story without further elaboration, as if not important. But think about it. This is 2005. The state senator in the district where Allen is trying to develop his deal wants in on a $1.5 million cash payment for political expertise.
In Allen's version, Willis Johnson in an early meeting simply told Allen there was an undisclosed partner in the SALT Group and that it was West. Allen told me he immediately told all three men—Norman, Johnson and Edmonds—that West, a sitting state senator with key voting power over issues critical to his project, could not be on his payroll.
He said Johnson told him, "'It's already been cleared with the ethics commission in Austin.'
"I said, 'Well, I don't care if it's been cleared or not. It makes absolutely no sense. He needs to be able to represent his constituents.'"
Allen told me that the SALT Group called him back, still pressing him to put West on his payroll. "There were at least two sets of phone calls where the SALT team was trying to understand my objections," he said. "And one of those was a speaker call. It was Willis, Pettis and Jon Edmonds.
"They were in a panic to get hold of me. And they were on speakerphone. They didn't tell me at the time that Royce was there, but I suspected that he was, just because they're asking me the same questions all over again, [as in], 'Now help me understand why.'"
Allen told me Norman later conceded that West had been on the other end of the speakerphone that day. I have attempted to get comment from West through his assistant, Kelvin Bass, and from Johnson, but neither man responded.
I did discuss it with Norman, who called Allen's version "a bald-faced lie." But Norman would not tell me what did happen.
Look, one of the happy things I have learned in writing about this is that southern Dallas and Dallas County are full of black people who see this for exactly what it is. Especially in the upwardly mobile southern suburbs like Lancaster and Wilmer, there are tons of black people who do not need and do not want a Royce West or a John Wiley Price getting between them and opportunity.
The inland port, meanwhile, seems to be brilliantly positioned for success and is doing well even now, in spite of the economy and in spite of a campaign of racial hectoring.
West is a guy who pulled down $3.9 million in legal fees in a six-year period from our city's struggling public school system. He's easy to understand. He's about money.
Price is only barely more complicated. Black upward mobility threatens to leave him behind, marooned in a sea of irrelevance. He has to convince his constituents that he alone, not jobs, will set them free.
But how do you explain The Dallas Morning News? Allen's company has brought Dallas an economic golden goose other cities could only dream of. But the Morning News sides against him, calling him a racist because he wouldn't put a politician on his payroll.
You know who would meet the News' smell test, according to this reasoning? I'm thinking of a guy who came from California, did good projects, got along with everybody, did business the Dallas way. His name is Brian Potashnik, and now he and his family are ruined, under federal indictment for participating in a City Hall bribery scheme.
What's truly racist is the belief that sleaziness arises in isolation on one side of the river or the other. The lesson here is that it takes two to tango.