Al Strikes Back

A jury found former Dallas City Council member Al Lipscomb guilty of taking bribes from a taxi company owner. The question is whether that was a federal crime.
Henry Bargas

Moments before stepping to the podium in an august New Orleans courtroom, defense attorney Billy Ravkind jotted a few more notes on his yellow legal pad. The pad--and a plastic pen--were all Ravkind carried with him Tuesday while appearing before a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. There was no point in arming himself with the voluminous briefs and reference books that attorneys typically bring for comfort to the high-ceilinged chamber, Ravkind said. By now, he is intimately familiar with the case of the United States of America vs. Albert Louis Lipscomb.

And judging by the reactions of the appeals court judges, one of the most controversial public corruption cases in Dallas history may not be over just yet.

Lipscomb, the aging civil rights firebrand and former Dallas City Council member, is now serving 41 months under house arrest. But in hearing his appeal, the panel was not primarily concerned with whether Lipscomb deserved to be convicted for taking bribes from Yellow Cab owner Floyd Richards. Nor did the three judges, all white men recognized as conservative jurists, particularly care about the hypercharged racial tension that engulfed Dallas after Lipscomb's indictment and during his prosecution.

Rather, the judges are being asked to decide if Lipscomb was convicted properly. Only they know whether they might ultimately decide to throw out Lipscomb's conviction, but Lipscomb's attorneys advanced two arguments for overturning the case that seemed to gain traction with the judges as the hearing progressed.

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The first was whether the federal government had any business prosecuting Lipscomb for corruption in the first place. Attorney Shirley Baccus-Lobel, appearing on Lipscomb's behalf, argued that what Lipscomb did, if it was a crime at all, was certainly not a federal crime. Lipscomb was convicted of taking cash payments from Richards in exchange for changing his stance on local regulations affecting the taxicab industry. No federal money was involved in the corruption scheme, Baccus-Lobel pointed out, and the federal government does not typically care how a city regulates its taxicabs. Former U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins' office stretched too far in indicting Lipscomb, she contended, repeating an argument that was rejected by U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall when he declined to dismiss the case before it went to trial.

When Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Cowger rose to respond to that argument, she was immediately challenged by Presiding Judge Jerry Smith, who expressed skepticism that there was a legitimate reason for the federal government to care about the bribery scheme. "This case didn't have anything to do with federal funds, did it?" Smith asked.

Cowger argued that Lipscomb's acceptance of money from Richards rose to the level of a federal crime because Richards' cabs serviced Love Field, which receives federal money.

"Is that really the best you can do to show us a connection [to federal funds]?" Smith asked Cowger. Well, Cowger responded, there was also the more general notion that the city of Dallas receives millions in federal funds for all sorts of purposes. Since Lipscomb sat on the City Council, and the council voted on how to spend that money, Cowger argued, "he was in a position where the federal government has an interest in policing for corruption."

So the more general a public official's responsibility for divvying up federal funds, the less need there is for the government to show a direct link between corruption and specific federal funds? asked Judge Jacques Wiener. "I think the federal government has a valid interest," Cowger replied.

The government's attorney met equally sharp, though more jocular, questioning over the transfer of Lipscomb's trial from Dallas to Amarillo.

Before Lipscomb's trial began, Kendall decided to move the proceedings to the Texas Panhandle city, though neither the defense nor the government asked for the transfer. In his arguments before the appeals judges, Ravkind noted that Kendall held no hearings to see if a fair trial was possible in Dallas before making the decision to leave town.

"In the real world, which I hope we're all living in, this jury could have been selected in Dallas," Ravkind argued. "The citizen accused is entitled to be tried by the peers where he lives." Moving the trial, Ravkind said, deprived Lipscomb of a crucial argument in his defense--Dallas jurors would have better understood that black civil rights leaders had to take money secretly from white businessmen in order to retain their credibility in the black community. That's just how things in Dallas are done.

When Cowger addressed the transfer question, she was again strafed by two of the appeals judges. Kendall was well within his discretion to move the trial, Cowger argued, because publicity about the case would have made it hard to find an impartial jury in Dallas. Jury selection alone, she said, might have taken up to three weeks.

"You're talking to us in a place where trying corrupt public officials is a cottage industry," joked Wiener, Louisiana born and bred. Three weeks to pick a jury, the judge noted, did not sound like a particularly burdensome task.

But it was Judge John Duhe Jr. who seemed most vexed, noting that Kendall failed to hold hearings or establish any record to show why the trial needed to be moved. "Did he just divine out of thin air that it was going to be hard to find a jury [in Dallas]?" Duhe asked. "Without a record, how can we review what the trial judge did? We have no idea what was in his mind."

Cowger argued that Kendall did make note of the extensive pretrial publicity in his ruling and acted within the bounds of his authority.

Lipscomb's lawyers raised three other issues in his defense, none of which seemed to attract much attention from the appeals judges. It may be months before the judges issue a ruling in the case.

Cowger declined to comment after the hearing except to note that it is generally folly to predict what an appeals panel will do.

Ravkind slipped the legal pad and pen back into his briefcase. "We got all we could have asked for," he said.

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