Latest Lesson from the City Hall Corruption Trial: When You Ask the City Attorney for an Ethics Opinion, Check With the FBI Too

There's a point I want to make about the Dallas City Hall corruption/bribery trial going on now in federal court. It's simple.

The trial probably seems impossibly complicated—14 defendants, lots of lingo, events scattered over several years. But look. It's not, not if you put yourself in the position.

Let's make something up. Pretend you need something from the city. Let's say you want to build a garage with a little upstairs mother-in-law apartment behind your house, but it's going to take a zoning change. You're headed downtown right now to appear before the city council to plead your case.

Last week, someone suggested you call Carol Reed and Associates, the public relations and political consulting firm that handled the election campaign of Mayor Tom Leppert. They may have some advice.

Indeed, they do. They tell you it would be perfectly legal and quite advisable for you to hire a certain security firm to guard your house. This firm happens to be owned by the sitting city council member who has direct influence over your little problem.

Not to worry about prison. They assure you this sort of arrangement has been thoroughly vetted by the Dallas city attorney. The city attorney has ruled it's copacetic as long as the council member "recuses" himself—doesn't vote—on issues that pertain to you personally.

Hmm? How's he gonna help if he can't vote? This has all been worked out, wouldn't you know.

Your issue will go the right way, because just before he recuses himself and leaves the room, your council member will have another council member tell the council how to vote. Then when the vote comes up, your member will lean out from around the corner and give them all the evil eye.

Look. You want your mother-in-law apartment? See that the council member gets some security work. Whaddya say?

Because I have been covering Dallas City Hall for about 100 years, I know that everything will happen just as they promise. I have seen things done this way at Dallas City Hall, down to and including the old reach-around evil eye "recusal."

But because I have been covering this trial, I know what you should say when they tell you it's been vetted by the city attorney. You need to say, "Yeah, but has it been vetted by the FBI?"

Because guess what? Deals that look "perfectly legal" to the Dallas city attorney can look like criminal offenses to the feds, and if you get caught between those rocks you could wind up downtown in the dock, trying to ward off a long stretch in the pen like the defendants in the current case.

In fact, you know what? I'd take my chances just not doing the security guard thing at all. Move your mother-in-law into the house with you. She's probably a lot easier to live with than your potential roommate in the Big House.

Think about it.

But people don't. This very situation occurred six years ago at City Hall. At a September 22, 2004, city council meeting, Laura Miller, then in her first term as mayor, leaned over to council member Don Hill and asked him why council member James Fantroy had recused himself and left the room on a zoning vote (after having another member tell everybody how to vote and then hovering in the wings to make sure things went his way).

Miller testified in court last week: "I said, 'What is the conflict of interest?' He [Hill] said, 'If this developer's project is approved today, Mr. Fantroy will get the security contract at his complex.'"

In court, Miller gave a description of her own subsequent behavior that was so understated I laughed out loud. (I was not in the courtroom.)

"I was surprised by that information," she told the court, "and I wanted to confirm it with the developer, so I got out of my chair, and I walked around to the podium where he was making his presentation."

Kathy Nealy, a political consultant who was in on the security contract, gave a much more colorful description in her testimony, describing Miller as charging out into the room and creating a huge "ruckus."

In fact, this was vintage Laura Miller—not the calculated politician she became later in her tenure but a green and fiery Carrie Nation, so angered and disgusted by what she had just heard that she was probably ready to punch somebody's lights out.

Miller stalked right up to the real estate developer, James R. ("Bill") Fisher, who was standing at the podium making his case for the zoning change. She asked if what Don Hill had just told her was true.

Fisher said it was. We know from other testimony in the trial that Fisher was not at all happy about being squeezed, but, fearing he would lose his business if he didn't give in, promised to dish some work to Fantroy in exchange for the council member's support.

Fantroy's support was crucial, because Fisher's project was in Fantroy's council district. Council members by informal mutual agreement are the sole deciders of zoning cases in their own districts. Fantroy had absolute thumbs-up, thumbs-down power over Fisher, and he wasn't giving it away for free.

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