By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Supposedly we just had ethics reform at Dallas City Hall. Let's talk about ethics. But let's talk about the real world.
There's this thing in Dallas I call death by a thousand tables. It was at the center of the recent Dallas City Hall corruption trial in federal court in which a city council member and his associates were convicted of bribery and extortion.
In the Don Hill case, real estate developers were trying to get deals done with the city in Hill's council district, over which Hill had total control.
It's a certain scene: While the developers are trying to get their City Hall agreements cinched, they're also trying to hold on to all kinds of things—options on land, promises of funding from banks, agreements with contractors and so on.
So they're stretched. And Don Hill, who has his thumb on the one button that can green-light their deals, knows they're stretched.
All kinds of people start buzzing around the developers, telling them they want this, want that. They're friends of Don Hill. Even his wife. And meanwhile, Don Hill's thumb hovers over that green-light button.
But the developers balk. They don't say yes to the buzzing people. And guess what? Don Hill doesn't mash that button. Instead he tables their deals. The developers get more stretched. Hill tables again. And again. Until finally the developers get stretched so thin they say yes to the buzzers. And Don Hill finally hits the button.
The table. That's where people get stretched.
Notably, it's also the one thing Mayor Tom Leppert's touted ethics reform at City Hall, approved by the city council with fanfare November 9, did not touch. Everything else. But not the table.
Leppert went after lobbyists, who weren't convicted of anything or charged, for that matter, in the City Hall trial. But he did not touch that table.
He could have. He could have taken what was exposed in the Hill trial and worked backward to a reform ordinance that might have meant something, depriving elected officials of the power of the table.
Instead, City Hall and other local entities continue to go to great lengths to preserve and protect their stretching power over contractors who can't take a hint. I want to share with you an especially egregious example, a case that's on appeal and about to go before the Texas Supreme Court.
This one goes back five years to the heyday of the late Lynn Flint Shaw, who was chairman of the board of Dallas Area Rapid Transit and head of Leppert's main political fund-raising committee.
A developer named John Tatum, himself a former DART board member, thought he had a deal to restore and develop an old trolley maintenance facility called Monroe Shop, next to a DART station on Corinth Street in southern Dallas. But the deal kept not getting done. Meanwhile, people were buzzing.
Tatum tells me that Shaw, who died in March of last year in an apparent murder-suicide with her husband, wanted Tatum to hire the wife of a prominent South Dallas clergyman to act as his "community consultant." Tatum, who thought his job was to take a 1913 industrial building and turn it into a museum, didn't know why he needed a community consultant.
DART owns the property. As part of its deal with Tatum, DART was to sell it to him. But Tatum says DART effectively told him he had to close on his loan with his lender before DART would even sign a contract with him, let alone close on the sale of the land.
That's like this. I'm selling you a house. But I tell you, "You have to go get the check from the bank and show it to me, and then I'll agree to sell you the house." It's a type of demand that falls under the technical legal category, "Totally Nutsoid."
The bank will provide the check after the closing. Not before. The bank wants to make sure Mr. Tatum uses the check to buy the building as opposed to going to Bolivia with a topless dancer.
I happen to know Mr. Tatum, and I know he would never do that. But I'm also not lending him several million bucks, am I?
Now here's the difference between Tatum and the developers in the City Hall trial. Tatum is not going to break the law, flirt with breaking the law or even stretch the law by dishing money out the side door to friends of a board member in a federally financed public-entity deal. But because he's a former member of the board himself and a veteran of some hard-fought city politics, he knows his way around the board chair.
Or thinks he does.
For more than a year, while Shaw and others were buzzing around Tatum with demands, DART wouldn't sign its contract with him. Tatum says he finally delivered an ultimatum in 2006 to DART attorney Shirley Thomas.
"I said, 'Look, Shirley, let me tell you something. I'm getting pretty fucking sick of this. We've been working on this thing 15 months, and we're getting nowhere. At the same time we're getting calls from people to sign them up [as consultants], and it looks to me like these are related.