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Deadbeats

Trinity Commons rents a huge city-owned parking lot, agrees to pay $80,000 rent. Doesn't pay it. Won't pay it. So why would we trust Trinity Commons?
Mark Graham

All the time, I rag on people, I criticize, I say negative stuff. For a change, I want to do something positive. Problem with that: my skill set. After so long as a reporter, what else am I qualified to do?

Great idea: debt collector. A lot of it's the same--checking people out, tracking them down, ragging on them. And maybe as a debt collector I'll be better liked.

So I decide to help my city by collecting some money for it. Since I'm just starting, I think I'll do an easy one. I take on the $80,000 owed to the city by the people pushing the Trinity River project, with the bridges by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and so on. They still owe 80 grand for a big Fourth of July party they threw on a city parking lot two years ago.

I figure this should be easy, because these are all the poshies who want in on the billion-dollar-plus Trinity project. This is the same group who applauded last November when the city announced it was going to use most of the money we approved in the 1998 bond election for manmade lakes downtown to go instead for highways and things related to the highways.

The city said it had only $16 million left over for lakes after paying for the highway stuff. The poshies, who want the highways badly, said not to worry. They would privately raise the additional $55 million needed for the lakes. Ed Oakley, chairman of the city council's Trinity River committee, said in a letter to The Dallas Morning News: "Private organizations such as the Dallas Institute, the American Institute of Architects and the Trinity Commons have stepped forward to raise the dollars that we do not have."

Private groups are going to come up with $55 million to pay us back for the tax money that's going into highways instead of the lakes we voted for? That's a lot for people to swallow. So I figured I wouldn't need to do the baseball bat thing to collect a mere 80 G's. These people should pay me that much just to avoid having embarrassing questions raised.

Debt Collecting Lesson No. 1: Deadbeats do not embarrass easy.

The "Trinity Fest" Fourth of July party and fireworks "extravaganza" was the first project taken on by Trinity Commons, a private entity created in October 2001 by then-Mayor Ron Kirk. The Dallas Morning News editorial page gushed: "The event is a model of how private support can enhance our civic environment."

I started by calling Carol Reed, head of her own public relations company, who was hired by Trinity Commons to put on the fireworks show in 2002 and 2003. Reed told me the 80 grand was supposed to be paid for rent on a huge city-owned parking lot where the party took place. She said doing the party "almost bankrupted my company."

Lesson No. 2 for student debt collector: "Almost bankrupted" could mean dry hole. Empty pockets. Keep movin'.

I said some sympathetic stuff about how she was just hired to do the job and so on, but who was behind it? Who were the poshies?

"You're putting me in a really awkward position," Reed said. "I was retained to do Trinity Fest. You cannot expect me...I am not going to make a comment about that.

"I'm taking the bullet on this," she said. Reed said she's negotiating to satisfy the debt with "pro bono" work.

According to what the city told me, pro bono ain't going to cut it. The city has dunned Reed twice for the 80 G's. Next step could be the courthouse. But Reed still argued none of it has to do with Trinity Commons.

She explained to me that Trinity Commons did the fireworks show the first year only, in 2002. During the next year, she explained, the fireworks show was spun off into a separate legal entity called the "Trinity River Festival Foundation Inc." She sent me paperwork showing that Trinity Fest was legally "dissolved" earlier this year with no money left over.

Now we're getting into some dodgy stuff, eh? Trinity Commons sponsors the fireworks show in 2002. Financial issues arise. A separate foundation is set up and "licensed by Trinity Commons" in 2003, according to Reed, to put on that year's show. This is the part of debt collecting I love.

I was especially interested in the board of directors for the separate fireworks show entity--Ron Kirk, Craig Holcomb and Chris Luna. Former mayor, two former city council members. Three pigs in a poke, eh?

Former Mayor Kirk was explicit in telling me that the parking lot debt happened in the first year of the festival. "That actually was incurred from the first year the Trinity Festival was done," he said. "It wasn't from last year. It was a carryover."  

So I'm wondering why the debt doesn't stick to Trinity Commons. If the debt came from the first year, before this second thing was formed, "Trinity Fireworks Limited Liability Double-Dodge Whatever," why shouldn't I go after Trinity Commons? They can't just hand off a debt to some new monkey business and get out of paying it, can they?

What do I have against Trinity Commons? Hey, speaking strictly as a debt collector, I love Trinity Commons. Last February Mayor Laura Miller, who says signature bridges are her top priority, hosted a single lunch for Trinity Commons at which they raised $91,000.

That was before they started selling tickets! The tickets were on top of that, at a C-note apiece. All the big law firms, construction companies, architects and landholders had already kicked in more than 90 grand before they opened the doors.

So if that was one lunch, they could pay me my moolah, right? And I could take it over to City Hall. This would be a win-win situation, right?

Kirk was adamant. He said the responsibility for the debt does not stick to Trinity Commons. "It is not Trinity Commons," he said. "It is not. Trinity Commons is a separate entity."

OK, but look: This is all poshies, right? The poshies said they would do this and do that. They want us to sign contracts for three "signature bridges," one of which costs five times what we have in the budget. They keep saying they'll take care of everything in the private sector. Just sign.

Why should we trust these people? I put it to Kirk: "If I say these are the guys who are telling you they can pay for these bridges, and look at this, they can't pay the rent on that parking lot, what would you say?"

Kirk said, "I would say this would be what I would expect from the Observer and Jim Schutze, and it would not surprise me that that would be your angle on your story. Seriously, I would say that's typical of Jim Schutze."

I have to be careful sometimes when I talk to Mr. Kirk not to get the big head.

Both Kirk and Reed told me that the person who did all the legal work for "Trinity Fireworks Reverse Statue of Liberty Who's Got the Ball Whatever" was board member Chris Luna. I tried to call Luna--he's the guy who had to resign from the board of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau over the titty-bar thing--but, as I have found in the past, Luna, legal giant to the poshies, is not that easy to find.

The number I had didn't work. He wasn't in the book. I checked with the State Bar of Texas and found a guy named John Luna who sounded suspiciously like Chris Luna.

Lesson No. 3 for junior debt collectors: Sometimes people are tricky.

I called the number for John Luna, and an answering machine said, "This is Chris Luna..."

Lesson No. 4: ...but not that tricky.

Luna never would talk to me. We did exchange e-mails. I was concerned that Reed and Kirk had been telling me the fireworks foundation was a "501 (c)(3)," meaning the money it raised, possibly as much as a few million bucks, was tax-deductible for the donors. I found no record of it being a 501 (c)(3).

Luna told me he couldn't discuss the 501 (c)(3) issue because of "attorney/client privilege," which is just pure-D goofy. Anyway, I was supposed to be debt-collecting, not investigating.

I wound up talking to the other board member of Trinity River Festival Foundation, Craig Holcomb, who gave me the same story Kirk had--that the fireworks show and Trinity Commons were totally separate entities, legally distinct, completely different folks, and that therefore Trinity Commons has no responsibility for the debts of the fireworks show.

I asked if he and Kirk and Luna and Carol Reed, as poshies, didn't have some responsibility for seeing that this debt gets paid. And now here is where, as a debt collector, you have to really keep your ears open.

Holcomb said, "Chris Luna and Carol Reed are not associated with Trinity Commons Foundation."

That's only two people. I had asked him about all four members of the board of the fireworks show. So I asked him if he was associated with Trinity Commons.

"Yes."

I asked how.

He said, "I am an employee."

I asked what employee.

He said, "I am the executive director of Trinity Commons."  

So let me see if I can sort this out: You have the Trinity Commons Foundation. They do the first show, and they run up an $80,000 debt to the city, according to what I have been told. Then they hand off the fireworks show--and the debt--to the Trinity River Festival Foundation, which they put out of business with the debt still unpaid.

Then you have this one Craig Holcomb who is a former member of the board of the defunct fireworks show. But you have this other Craig Holcomb--totally legally distinct--who is executive director of Trinity Commons. Now I'm talking to both Craig Holcombs. And neither one of them is going to pay me a nickel.

Look, I'm a total failure here. I have come up with zilch. Not a sou. Sorry. I think I've pretty much decided just to go back to writing about the money instead of trying to collect it. Next to this, being a reporter isn't that bad. Frankly, I miss the popularity.


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