By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Aghast at the river of sleaze oozing out of the Earle Cabell Federal Building in the past two months, reformers on the Dallas City Council have called for a system of registration for local lobbyists. Great idea. Much of the testimony in the Dallas City Hall corruption trial in federal district court has involved so-called political consultants who get paid to swing council votes in favor of the people paying them. It's a good issue. It's just not the best issue. The underlying problem at City Hall isn't lobbying. It's influence-peddling and patronage. That's the cancer.
Part of the evidence in the trial is that former Dallas City Council member Don Hill's girlfriend at the time, Sheila Hill, nee Farrington, was paid $175,000 as a political consultant by a developer who was seeking zoning changes from Don Hill. I believe in political terms that's what you would call the direct connection.
Had there been a registration law for lobbyists in effect five years ago when the events in the trial took place, then presumably Farrington-Hill would have been required to hike down to the city secretary's office and sign on the dotted line. Testimony at the trial from longtime lobbyists at City Hall indicates all of them would have taken a gander at the list the next day and said, "Sheila who?" From there, one assumes, some degree of transparency might have transpired.
That's why city council member Angela Hunt this week persuaded four other council members—Jerry Allen, Pauline Medrano, Ann Margolin and Linda Koop—to sign a letter to the city attorney asking him to research registration laws in Austin and other cities.
"I don't think this will put an end to graft or corruption," Hunt told me. "I think that would be naïve and overly idealistic. But I think it can provide transparency."
The morning after Hunt sent her letter to the city attorney, The Dallas Morning News reported that this actually had been Mayor Tom Leppert's idea all along. I guess he wanted it to be a surprise. I know it was for me, especially since Leppert's own chief political advisor has been mentioned frequently in the trial without any notable comment from the mayor. More on that in a moment.
The real lobbyists don't object to a call for simple registration, as long as it doesn't turn into an attempt to shut down lobbying. I spoke with Willie Cothrum, proprietor of one of the city's oldest, most respected lobbying firms, Masterplan. "We don't have any problem at all with a plan for registration," he said. "I don't necessarily see the need for it. The people we deal with know who we are."
But Cothrum indicated he'd sign up without a hullabaloo as long as the requirements didn't include a lot of questions probing into proprietary matters, like who talked to whom about what before anybody even gets a deal going. And I think we all get that.
Politics in Dallas is 98 percent real estate. Real estate is about trying to be where the crowd's going to be later, before the crowd knows it's going. Or, as they say in real estate school, "Deception, deception, deception."
If you have to telegraph your punches, you might as well not bother punching. Requiring people to provide information that will give away their strategies is like telling people they have to go down to the police station and fill out a report whenever they think they might be falling in love.
Require away. Ain't gonna happen.
But a basic law saying that people who get paid to influence City Hall need to make themselves known by registering is really only a way to put lobbyists on a more equal footing with ordinary citizens. Hunt said, "You know when folks come up to City Hall, an average everyday citizen neighborhood activist, they come up and they stand at that microphone. What's the first thing they have to do? They have to give their name and address. It's a matter of public record if you appear before the city council.
"Well, why wouldn't we help ensure transparency in other ways when people are speaking to us behind closed doors, especially when they are paid lobbyists?"
So registration would help the public know who's a paid lobbyist. The deeper question of influence and patronage probably is not as susceptible to regulation.
We're not talking about bribery. At least I'm not. Bribery is a major topic of conversation right now at the federal building, and in another couple months we'll find out how the jury feels about it.
I'm talking about a machinery of patronage, perfectly legal and very powerful, linking some of the top ad agencies and political campaign runners in town with the mayor and the Citizens Council, the private business group that used to handpick the city council before a ruling in a civil rights lawsuit outlawed the old at-large council system. This machinery exercises great influence over public works decisions, the distribution of public works contracts and the raising of political money. In this entire nexus, taken together, you wind up with a whole lot of leverage.