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.

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.

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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