Price Investigation's Royal Pains

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

Included in the first batch of federal subpoenas were demands for records sent to the Hillwood development company on June 27, the day the FBI raided the home and offices of Price and his associates. Hillwood is owned by the wealthy and powerful Perot family.

Price and his close political associate Kathy Nealy, also the target of raids and subpoenas, have been tightly linked with the Perots in the past on a number of issues, ever since Nealy helped deliver the city's black vote in 1998 to approve bonds for American Airlines Center, in which Hillwood was a principal investor.

Perot family members were the developers and principal investors in a major shipping and warehousing center around Alliance Airport near Fort Worth, which opened in 1989. In 2006 at a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Ross Perot Jr. called Dallas' Inland Port development a "direct threat" to Alliance.

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.

In the days after that luncheon, Hillwood executives spoke to Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Mitchell Schnurman, telling Schnurman they were especially worried about public infrastructure money that might go to the Inland Port in Dallas at the expense of Alliance.

Mike Berry, president of Hillwood Properties, a division of Hillwood, told Schnurman that Alliance needed an infusion of $80 million to $100 million in public money for internal improvements and several billion dollars for improvements to three highways — Interstate 35, Loop 820 and Texas 183.

Berry also expressed alarm over a land purchase option agreement signed in the Inland Port area by Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, the primary rail carrier to Alliance. He said he was worried that public dollars spent on the Inland Port might encourage BNSF to shift some operations there and away from Alliance.

"Why give them any reason to expand elsewhere?" Berry said to Schnurman.

Later, David Pelletier, a spokesman for Hillwood, made the same points to me: "Our point is, let's finish Alliance ... before we start spending infrastructure dollars on a project that hasn't really proven itself yet."

The Inland Port never needed that kind of dollars. A key reason Allen chose southern Dallas as the place to buy 5,000 acres for his Inland Port development, he told me, was that the highways were already in place. Alliance Airport, he said, was in the wrong place — the boondocks outside Fort Worth, served by boondocks roads. Dallas' Inland Port didn't require billions of dollars in public investment: It already had the edge in both roads and rail.

But soon after the Perot interests began expressing anxiety about the Inland Port and after Allen failed to hire Price's associates, Price began his campaign of obstruction of the Inland Port. With the support of The Dallas Morning News, he publicly accused Allen of racism.

So what is the linkage here? Ravkind says there may be lots of interesting political issues surrounding the Inland Port but no criminal element linked to his client, Price. He told me Price had every right to oppose Allen on Inland Port issues because Allen, who later filed bankruptcy, was never a viable developer.

"This guy saying that he was pressured is just a bunch of crap," Ravkind says. "This guy didn't have any money. That was the main problem he had with the Inland Port. He couldn't have pulled it off in a thousand years."

Allen is out of bankruptcy now and has told me the Inland Port project is back up and running, open for business. I understand Ravkind's strategy: If this is all going to be about the Inland Port and the way Price treated Allen, then Ravkind has got to dirty Allen up in order to make his own client look better.

My heart sinks a bit at what Ravkind is telling me, however, because it means Allen is in for another round of horse-whipping when Price gets indicted, which everyone including Ravkind agrees will happen at some point.

Man comes here and buys 5,000 acres, tries to create 60,000 clean, well-paid jobs in southern Dallas — I don't know if what happened to Allen was political or criminal. It was just bad.

So go back to queen for a day. How do you get to be queen for a day, anyway? If you did something wrong and the government has the goods on you, why should they make you queen for a minute? Why not just put you in the slammer and let you be queen there?

You get to be queen for a day if you can bring down the king. A little man can be queen if he can bring down a middle-sized man, and a middle-sized man can be queen if he can bring down a big man.

In the full picture here, Willis Johnson is a little man, and John Wiley Price and Royce West are middle-sized men. That leaves a lot of room for royalty.

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