Price Investigation's Royal Pains

"Queens for a day" could be a sign that feds are getting really ambitious.

The classic '50s radio show Queen for a Day always opened with the line "Would YOU like to be queen for a day?" Presumably for the last several weeks a good many Dallas politicians and City Hall insiders have been greeting each other in darkened corridors with a whispered variation on that theme, more like, "Have you already been queen for a day?"

"Queen for a day" is courthouse slang for what are more formally called proffer or protection-letter agreements between prosecutors and witnesses who may also be defendants. A queen for a day letter is a contract. Somebody with knowledge of a crime, who may even have participated in the crime, can come in and spill his guts to the U.S. attorney.

Depending on the specific terms of the queen for a day letter, certain kinds of evidence revealed by the witness cannot be used against him or her should that witness later become a defendant.

If you think John Wiley Price would make a good defendant, imagine him as a government witness.
Brandon Thibodeaux
If you think John Wiley Price would make a good defendant, imagine him as a government witness.

So has anyone already been made queen for a day in the FBI's expansive investigation of corruption in city and county government in Dallas? I keep checking every few days, and the defense lawyers keep telling me that the big-name targets are still sticking to a joint defense agreement, meaning no queens yet.

But it could happen. If it does, that will be because the FBI and the U.S. attorney want to go big on this case, the defense lawyers tell me. The feds, of course, tell me nothing most days, less than nothing other days, but the defense side tells me their clear impression so far is that the feds are not going to be happy making cases out of shady campaign expenditures, insider T-shirt sales or improper vehicle registrations.

Billy Ravkind, lawyer for Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, says federal investigators are looking for evidence of corrupt dealings involving Dallas' so-called "Inland Port," a massive truck, rail and warehousing development in southern Dallas and Dallas County.

"They're looking for that, because, see, that's big," Ravkind says.

This story goes way back. Seven years ago Richard Allen, the primary developer of the Inland Port, complained to Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson that a group of Price's associates were leaning on him to give them $1.5 million and a 15 percent cut of his company. In exchange for this largesse, they would provide Allen with entrée into southern Dallas politics.

Allen had already been in town five years at that point. He had good relationships with many local officials and with Johnson. She told Allen not to pay the money. He didn't have to pay anybody to have access to her or anyone else, she said. So he didn't.

When he refused, Allen says Price started using his office to throw up serious roadblocks in the path of his development. He held up money for key bridge and water projects, called for massive new planning efforts that would have stalled the project for years and tried to get a new layer of government created to control the project. Is that extortion? Or is it politics? That's going to be a very close question, Ravkind tells me.

Two principals in the group that approached Allen, businessmen Pettis Norman and Jon Edmonds, appeared under subpoena before a federal grand jury two weeks ago. They declined to tell reporters what they told the grand jury. (Witnesses can talk about grand jury testimony; grand jurors cannot.)

As far as anyone knows, a person who has not been subpoenaed and has not appeared before the grand jury is Willis Johnson, a principal in Norman and Edmonds' group and a much more important figure in this situation and generally than either man.

Johnson played a crucial role in getting Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings elected. He was a key consultant to former Mayor Tom Leppert. A radio host by profession, Johnson in a short time has become perhaps the city's most prolific public contractor, with deals at the city, school district, transit agency and toll road agency where he is a provider of communications technology and servicing and general engineering.

If Ravkind is right and the feds are trying hard to pierce the Inland Port deal, they have to talk to Johnson at some point. I tried to call Johnson at his company, but the phone was unanswered. I emailed him to ask if he has made an arrangement to provide evidence, but I did not hear back.

The other player in the Inland Port situation is state Senator Royce West, who either was or was not a part of the group that Allen refused to pay, depending on whose story you hear. West says he was not. He has declined to reply to reporters asking him whether he has been subpoenaed. I emailed West and was able to leave a message on his personal voice mail but did not hear back.

If the feds wanted to talk to West, would he be a witness, a target or a queen? Good question. We won't know for a while. But we will know.

The queen for a day question is important right now because of a growing impression on the defense side that this investigation may have targets beyond Price, West or any of the people named so far.

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