By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Two weeks ago the trial provided an especially raw little moment, a window through which we were able to steal a peek at this power and how it works. In September 2004, then Mayor Laura Miller stirred up a storm when she learned that a housing developer seeking approvals from the late council member James Fantroy was going to dish a bunch of work to Fantroy's private security firm.
The council rushed into a secret "executive session," after which Dallas City Attorney Madeleine Johnson ruled that the developer could give Fantroy the contracts legally. One reason we have a federal corruption trial going on today is that the FBI, when it got word of the deal, disagreed with the city attorney.
But let's take ourselves back to that moment and try to imagine the mood behind closed doors in the city council offices. The city attorney has given the council some kind of ruling or opinion to the effect that it's OK for a guy seeking a zoning vote from a councilman to pass a lot of money to the councilman through business contracts.
The mayor of the city, on the other hand, thinks it stinks. But the establishment has its own agenda and wants to keep things running smoothly. Fantroy was a reliable source of votes for establishment projects and deals.
So if we imagine ourselves in that warren of city council cubicles, we are at a kind of crossroad, a little beyond the reach of the law. The city attorney says it's OK. The mayor says it stinks. How do we feel? Even if we believe we are all right by the law, we still have a decision to make that is political and moral.
This is the moment when Carol Reed steps in. Reed, founder of The Reeds Public Relations Corp., has run the successful mayoral campaigns of every establishment mayor since 1981—Jack Evans, Starke Taylor, Annette Strauss, Ron Kirk and the incumbent, Tom Leppert. She ran the campaign for the city's 2006 bond campaign, the largest in history.
Reed is a direct conduit to the Citizens Council. The Citizens Council and its members remain without peer as sources of campaign funding in the city.
At that fateful moment in 2004, when the council was deciding what to do about Fantroy and his security guard contracts, Reed also was working as a paid lobbyist for Bill Fisher, the developer in question then and the main government informant and witness now in the ongoing corruption case.
Reed's agreement with Fisher was that she would be paid $100,000 if she could win council approval of three of his affordable housing projects. She has not been called to testify in the trial. She told me this week she was not working for Fisher when the contracts were initially awarded to Fantroy.
But testimony in the trial has established that Reed advised Fisher not to pull the contracts after Miller exposed them. Keep the juice flowin'! The council agreed.
In the corruption trial, the defense is hitting Reed's role in this incident hard as an illustration of a double standard. When Fisher was on the stand, Victor Vital, attorney for Sheila Farrington Hill, asked him about Reed's role:
"Do you know that the FBI never wiretapped her phone?" Vital asked Fisher.
"I don't know that," Fisher said.
"Did you know that the Federal Bureau of Investigation never investigated Carol Reed, the well-known political consultant here in Dallas? Is Carol Reed a defendant in this courtroom?"
With that, Vital passed the witness.
So let me say this. I don't believe there is a scintilla of evidence that Carol Reed broke any law when she gave Fisher the advice she did. Reed is a tough player at times, but she's honest. And she's right. If the city attorney said do it, she was within her rights to say do it.
But how many average voters in Dallas realize that things get done this way, with the blessing and imprimatur of the one person who more than anyone else in town represents the political face of the establishment?
Reed talked to me about it. She said: "All I know is the city attorney ruled on those contracts. Whatever the city attorney said, that would be my advice.
"It's been too long ago. I talked to the FBI long before the indictments were even brought down. And I am just not even close to it. I have no desire to get in the middle of it now."
Reed said she would have no objection to a law calling for lobbyists to register. "I have absolutely no problem with filing. Anybody knows that when I come down there, I'm getting paid."
I asked her if her proximity to the mayor might put her in a special category. She said: "Not any more than if I worked on the governor's race and I was lobbying in Austin. That's what I do for a living. I've been down there for years. Everything is about being transparent."
I asked Mayor Leppert, through his staff, whether he believes it is appropriate for his own key political advisors and campaign runners to be paid lobbyists before the city council. As usual when I ask him tough questions, Leppert did not respond.
The larger issue of influence and patronage is one that will have to be settled someday at the polls. I guess Mayor Leppert, if he could speak, would say it already has been.