Good News -- Really -- From the City Hall Corruption Trial

Believe it or not—and I'm actually trying to talk myself into it—there may be a way to look at this terribly depressing City Hall corruption trial now under way in federal court and come away feeling optimistic. And I'm not talking about watching the trial while drunk.

There's sort of a golden thread here. Maybe. But you need a magnifying glass.

As you know, the federal government has accused 14 defendants, including a former Dallas City Council member and a former member of the city plan commission, of extorting bribes from real estate developers. The defense has not yet presented its case. The prosecution's presentation of evidence is now in its seventh week.

Some months ago I was writing a lot about the unrelated political bullying of a railroad and trucking developer in southern Dallas County. Richard Allen is the main private player in what is called the southern Dallas inland port. Local officials were jacking him around after he had declined to hand over a slice of his family-owned company to a group of local political "consultants."

While those stories were running, I got a few calls from old-line downtown establishment types—such people do talk to me sometimes, even if they wouldn't want their children to know—mainly to express their empathy for Allen. He is by all appearances a straight-up businessman trying to bring a huge number of new, well-paid jobs to southern Dallas, a community that hasn't really been fully engaged with the national economy or culture since Reconstruction.

You'd think the business establishment would like him. And I think they do. Sort of. But the ones who called me had a caveat.

"Obviously," as one man put it, "Allen got terrible advice on how to proceed politically, or he wouldn't have had all these problems."

So last week I'm sitting in the federal courthouse downtown watching the testimony of one Brian Potashnik, who, like Allen, is a real estate developer, and who, like Allen, came here from California, and who, like Allen, was hit on to hire certain favored "consultants"—in Potashnik's case the mistress and now wife of a sitting city council member with life and death sway over his projects.

But Potashnik, unlike Allen, said yes.

According to the standards of the people who called me about Allen, Potashnik knew how to play ball. I'm sure the solons of the city sat down at dinner parties and told Potashnik the very same thing Allen has told me they told him at dinner parties: That's just how it has always been done here. You have to expect it and accept it. It's how things are.

So now I see Potashnik before me on the stand, a ruined man. Potashnik and his wife, Cheryl, have pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges. His elderly father, Jack Potashnik, has pleaded guilty to tax evasion.

If the judge sticks to the plea deal, which she is not required to do, Potashnik could get two years and four months in the pen, and his wife could get a year and four months. Potashnik's father, who is 72, faced up to five years in prison and a $100,000 fine, although he's probably not looking at jail time now.

I'm sitting here in a small courtroom a floor above the big courtroom where the trial is actually taking place. We're up here because the judge allows us to use cell phones and laptops while we watch on closed circuit.

At this moment, the defense lawyers are giving Brian Potashnik a hard time about his money: Isn't it true, they want to know, that he gets to keep some of his millions in return for ratting out their clients?

I understand the legal strategy. They need to undermine his credibility with the jury. The lawyers need to plant doubt in the minds of the jurors. He's just testifying against their clients, they suggest, to save his own money.

But from a strictly human-interest point of view, so what if he keeps some money? Who gives a shit? He had X many millions of dollars. Now he's going to have X minus Y millions. But this man is still going to the pen. His wife may be going to the pen. His father has already been through the kind of mental ass-whipping that can kill old people.

Do you not think that this man would gladly have paid whatever he has left—times 20—if it would have kept his wife out of prison and spared his father from ever having had to go through this?

It's not really my intention to twist the knife, but I do want to point something out: Brian Potashnik is the man, according to all the downtown dinner party wisdom, who knew how to play ball in Dallas. And where is he right now? This is the one who got the really uptown, high-dollar, in-the-know political advice.

Allen, meanwhile—the one who just didn't know how to play, who just didn't know how it's done here in Dallas, the one The Dallas Morning News sneered at in editorials for being an obstructionist—is not in the dock. He's downtown.

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