Lesson learned from federal corruption trial: How to gain access to the portals of power at City Hall

Look at the sequence of events:

In early August, Carol Reed, a city council lobbyist and the top political consultant to Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, is mentioned in the ongoing Dallas City Hall corruption trial because she advised a client to keep giving private business contracts to a city council member from whom the client was seeking a zoning approval.

On August 24, city council member Angela Hunt persuades four other council colleagues to send a letter to the city attorney asking him to research lobbyist registration laws in other cities.

On August 25, Leppert issues a manifesto saying lobbyist reform was his idea all along.

You can't fault the man for chutzpah.

The reason for concern about lobbying and consulting at City Hall right now has everything to do with Leppert's way of operating. The idea of Leppert as the champion of reform goes down hard.

Carol Reed is one of two paid political operatives for Leppert who shows up regularly at City Hall to lobby the council for votes. For this, the operatives receive hefty fees from clients. Reed has run all of Leppert's campaigns, for his election and on the referendum issues he supported.

Another Leppert operative often at City Hall is Mari Woodlief, president of Allyn Partners, whose company also has been involved in his campaigns.

There is a major difference between people like Reed and Woodlief showing up at City Hall to lobby on behalf of clients and the work of the regular, long-established lobbyists who handle zoning issues for developers. By regular lobbyists I'm thinking of Mike Coker, Willie Cothrum, Michael Jung, Susan Mead, Jonathan Vinson, Kirk Williams (I'm trying to go in alphabetical order). There are others I don't know, and they probably charge extra for that.

The regular lobbyists are either engineers and planners, like Coker and Cothrum, or lawyers, like Jung, Mead, Vinson and Williams. They tend to work zoning and land-use issues to the exclusion of other work. Some of them have sub-specialties within that realm.

Cothrum represents only developers, not neighborhood groups. Mike Jung tends to show up on the side of neighborhood organizations, although I have seen him on the other side of the street a few times. Vinson and Williams are really good lawyers. Mead, I think, can preach the world round or preach it flat. In fact, I think she could preach me flat.

If you wonder why someone would need professional help dealing with the city on a complex issue, then you haven't tried to deal with the city on a simple issue. Try calling down there. You have to hope you don't need anything more complicated than, "Hey, my house is kinda on fire, could you send out a truck?"

The traditional consultants twist some arms. I'm almost always on the other side. But this is a free country, and the political work they do is honest work built on a foundation of technical and legal expertise.

Reed and Woodlief are well-paid campaign consultants. Reed's talents include being the premier political fund-raiser in the city, with direct lines into many of the deep pockets in the Dallas business community. Woodlief is president of Allyn Media, mainly a political advertising and campaign consulting agency. So why would people who are not running for office hire them?

Carol Reed and Mari Woodlief are close to the mayor. If I could design their business cards, the cards would read, "Carol Reed" or "Mari Woodlief" and then, "Close to Mayor." I might add to Reed's "...and the money."

To be sure, they both deny that's the commodity they sell. I asked Woodlief two weeks ago if her proximity to the mayor through involvement in his campaigns might not create an ethical conflict for her when she asks individual council members for their votes on other clients' issues.

"What do you mean by conflict?" she asked.

"I mean that you have more of a shadow, more influence and leverage over council members," I said, "because when you go to them they will see you as proxy for the mayor."

"I don't think that's true at all," she said. "We don't work for the mayor on an ongoing basis. Our business relationship with him ended when the campaign ended."

But everybody knows it starts up again when the next campaign season comes around.

Reed also insisted that she is open about her role as a lobbyist and that her relationship with the mayor has nothing to do with it.

"Anybody knows that when I come down there, I'm getting paid," she said.

I said, "But is there not a special case, the Carol Reed case, because of your relationship with the mayor...because you have been instrumental in the mayor's political success," I went on and on, "does that give you a little bit of a conflict in going to council members to lobby them for their votes?"

"No," Reed said. "Not any more than it would if I worked on the governor's race and I was lobbying in Austin. That's what I do for a living."

Well, Austin. What an ethical goal to shoot for.

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