By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This terrible City Hall corruption trial we just went through—11 people either found guilty of federal crimes or pleading guilty to them—wasn't about black Dallas. It was about Dallas. To see the real story, try to focus on this one small chapter. This little play within the play, about events that transpired six years ago, tells the tale.
According to sworn testimony in the three-month-long trial, two top Dallas political consultants were trying in 2003 to get support for their client, Bill Fisher, from the late James Fantroy, a city council member. Fisher wanted to build government-supported affordable housing in Fantroy's district.
The real game for Fisher was to win lucrative tax credits awarded by the state as an incentive for building this type of housing—credits worth tens of millions of dollars that made affordable housing more affordable to developers. But the state would not award the credits unless local officials gave their blessing—a wrinkle adopted by the Legislature after some communities said they didn't want this type of housing.
At Dallas City Hall, the behind-the-scenes understanding was that these tax credit deals were the sole province of city council members in whose districts they were proposed. So if a city council member gave someone like Fisher a thumbs-down, Fisher was out of luck in that district. If he got a thumbs-up, millions of dollars flowed into his pocket.
The thumb was worth a lot of money. Some council members were selling the thumb. That's why we have 11 guilty verdicts and pleas in the City Hall corruption case.
In the Dallas way of doing things, Fisher hired two consultants—a white one to handle white people on the council and a black one to handle persons of color. The white one, Carol Reed, today is the chief fund-raiser and political advisor to Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert.
Reed runs the white side of all the big political campaigns in Dallas—bond projects, Trinity River project, convention center hotel—usually backed by the Dallas Citizens Council, an elite business group with roots deep in the city's troubled past.
The black consultant, Kathy Nealy, is a nationally active political lobbyist, best known here as a representative of the Perot family interests and for being Reed's chief operative in black southern Dallas on many major campaigns.
Reed and Nealy were to get city council approval for Fisher's projects. Nealy had the important job of winning Fantroy's support.
Fantroy was elected to the council in District 8 in far southeastern Dallas in 2000, the same year his political mentor, former councilman Al Lipscomb, was convicted on all 65 counts in a federal bribery indictment. Fantroy died last year of kidney cancer after serving time in prison for stealing $20,000 from the city's impoverished black college, Paul Quinn.
I dredge through all of this unpleasant detail for a reason. It's important to know what kind of world Bill Fisher was paying his emissaries, Reed and Nealy, to enter and do business in.
This would all be simple if it were a story about Reed and Nealy tricking good people into doing bad things. But that would be a very naïve take. As a matter of fact, I have talked to Reed for decades and have never once known her to tell me anything but the truth. I don't know Nealy as well, but am aware that she is respected at high levels nationally, up to and including past White House regimes.
They are two very smart, hard-knuckled women with their own brand of street-wise integrity, sent to do business in a swamp, often by men who don't have the balls to go there themselves.
Fantroy ran for office in 2000 on a pledge to defend his district from new multifamily housing developments. District 8 voters wanted new single-family residential development. But in 2003 when Nealy brought Fisher and his partner in to see him at Dallas City Hall, Fantroy, who owned a small security guard company, was ready to do some typical City Hall business.
Nealy testified at trial that Fantroy told her to have her clients step into the corridor—but she should stay behind. When they were alone, Fantroy told her he wanted her clients to give his company contracts for security work at the housing developments they wanted to build in his district. The deal included a $5,000 signing bonus for Fantroy and $160,000 worth of work for his struggling security company.
But here we come to a turning point in the saga. During a September 24, 2003, meeting of the Dallas City Council, then-Mayor Laura Miller learned of the security guard contract deal. And she went ballistic.
Miller insisted the council go into executive session to talk about the contracts. The rest of the council and the city attorney decided the contract deal was acceptable. Miller, still furious, contacted Sarah Dodd, then a KTVT-Channel 11 news reporter, and told her the part of the contracts story that had occurred in the public meeting.
According to testimony and to people close to the government's case, Dodd's story was how the FBI caught wind of the problems at City Hall. It's why the FBI launched its investigation. (By the way, we can officially retire the myth that Miller never got anything big done in her years as a council member and mayor.)