Former Hutchins Mayor Artis Johnson Is Clear of Criminal Charges, but Their Damage Lingers
Former Hutchins Mayor Artis Johnson
The legal event called criminal indictment is a familiar theme in the news of any given day: It's the step where a grand jury formally accuses a person of a crime and thereby launches the process that will lead either to a trial or a plea of guilty in some kind of bargain. But what is it like to be indicted? What is it like to be indicted if you believe you are innocent?
This cavernous place with shades drawn against the winter sun is the living room of Artis Johnson, 64-year-old former mayor of Hutchins, a hamlet on the southern cuff of Dallas County. His house, small and tidy, reflects the masculine tastes of its bachelor owner. On the wall directly in front of me is a flat-screen television, just above a desk carrying a computer and various cable TV boxes. Behind me is a small cast-iron wood stove, the source of heat on this cold slate-gray afternoon.
Johnson sits on a sofa to my left, a solid man in a black three-piece suit. I am here to talk with him about his indictment last March on charges of criminal conspiracy and abuse of official capacity. The original charges returned by a grand jury were for felony offenses, eventually knocked down to misdemeanors. At the end of last year, in the waning hours of Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins' tenure in office, all charges against Johnson and nine other Hutchins city employees were dropped.
I have no idea what the truth was or is about the other employees. I never believed the charges against Johnson — a two-bit opinion on my part except that I am familiar with the political context. At one point Johnson was at the center of the "Inland Port" controversy about a huge and star-crossed shipping and warehousing project that I have followed closely for the better part of a decade. We'll come back to that.
Robert Pitre, a southern Dallas landowner, says Johnson was fighting for Hutchins and got snared in a bigger political fight over and the Inland Port.
Right now, here in his living room, Johnson's face is a mask, solemn and without expression, turned slightly away from me while we discuss details of the indictment and the dropping of the charges. But when I ask him what it was like, what it felt like to be under the shadow, to have the finger of accusation pointed at him, he turns and looks at me in surprise. The mask falls, and I see pain that cannot be concealed.
After a long pause, he says, "I don't think nobody would ever imagine. I was devastated. I'm still getting over it. You can't give that back to me. I had a good name. I was hurt to my heart."
In front of his house are two beautiful long-leaf pines Johnson planted 31 years ago when he moved to Hutchins. He put them there to remind him of his native San Augustine in deep East Texas.
San Augustine was still segregated when he graduated from high school. His family, descendants of slaves, have owned their homeplace outside San Augustine for generations. After college, Johnson worked a series of jobs in Dallas banks, starting in collections back when the bank collector on a car loan had to be his own repo man. "That job was very stressful," he says with a small laugh. But in college and then in banking, Johnson learned the ins and outs of orderly bookkeeping and sound fiscal practice.
From early in life, he says his family had high expectations of him. When he came to Dallas in the late 1960s to attend Bishop College, Bishop was embroiled in student protest. But Johnson, the first of his family to attend college, was not about to get involved. "I couldn't very well go home and tell my mother I got kicked out of school because I was protesting."
The charges brought against him last year involve an alleged conspiracy by city of Hutchins employees to steal scrap metal from a city yard and sell it for personal gain at a commercial recycling yard.
Johnson served on the Hutchins City Council for seven years before being elected mayor in 2002. He retired from his banking job to serve. The mayor in Hutchins is the city's top administrative officer, the signer of checks. He was indicted last year on the basis of a single check he wrote from a city account to one of the employees accused of profiting illegally from city property.
I called the assistant Dallas County district attorney who dropped the charges, Russell Wilson, who is now in private practice; he deferred questions to the new district attorney, Susan Hawk. I asked Hawk's staff for comment, but I did not hear back.
The original investigation was carried out by former Hutchins Police Chief Frank McElligott, now a lieutenant over administration in a larger police department in Corinth. He told me he hopes the charges may be reinstated under Hawk.
Both McElligott and Johnson told me that it was Johnson acting as mayor who asked McElligott to launch an investigation after Johnson was informed that a court clerk was embezzling money. While McElligott carried out a broad-ranging criminal investigation, Johnson was in charge of a parallel civil investigation. He had just fired Ronnie O'Brien, the head of the city's public works department, over the scrap operation when O'Brien offered to testify to McElligott that Johnson knew about the scrap-selling all along.
No one appears to have accused Johnson of profiting one nickel from the scrap-selling. But McElligott did find a single check that Johnson had written on a city account to O'Brien that could be interpreted as an illegal payment. I asked McElligott why he sought an indictment on such sparse evidence.
"The thing is," McElligott said, "I told everyone, 'If I believe someone is involved in an act that is illegal, I'm putting him in.'
"I'm going to send the case to the D.A.'s office, and the D.A.'s office can take it to the grand jury or not. The grand jury can either indict them or not.
"But what I'm not going to have is in 12 or 18 months when this goes to trial, I don't want your defense attorney saying to me, 'Well, why didn't you file a case on the mayor? He was involved in that.' So everybody goes."
In this case, the grand jury did indict Johnson and nine other employees. Two employees, according to Johnson and to McElligott, were on their way to the courthouse to sign plea bargain agreements one day in late December when the district attorney's office unexpectedly elected instead to vacate all of the charges.
McElligott offers the willingness of the two defendants to enter plea bargain agreements as proof that his case was good.
He said, "Now, you don't plead to a bad case. Would you?"
I said, "It would depend on how scared I was. I think people can plead to stuff they didn't do."
"Wow," he said.
Reputation may not be a slam-dunk defense, but Johnson's reputation is unmarred going back decades through careers in public service and the private sector. Richard Allen, the California entrepreneur who spurred development of the Inland Port project in Dallas, speaks without hesitation in defense of Johnson's role when the project was under assault from Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, now under federal indictment for bribery conspiracy and income tax evasion.
Johnson, Allen says, "stood up to John Wiley Price and supported our project. I consider him to be a very honorable and personable public servant, and I hated to see him go, and I certainly hated to see him be charged as he was charged."
Allen says he knows nothing of the background or details of the allegation against Johnson. "All I know is that Artis is a stand-up guy and clearly one of the good guys down there who has stood up to some of the not so good guys."
Retired Deputy Constable John L. Garrett, a longtime fellow churchgoer with Johnson, says, "By me being a retired police officer, I think he's a good person, an honest person. When those charges were put against him, I knew then that they were false charges."
Myron Goff, a major landholder and an early player in the Inland Port saga, tells me: "He's always been a nice guy. I owned 1,500 acres in Hutchins at one time, and anything that was good for Hutchins, he was for it. I felt like he's honest."
Some observers see the charges against Johnson as payback for resistance Johnson showed Price when Price appeared to be working under the table to promote the wealthy and powerful Perot family's interests in the Inland Port project. Robert Pitre, a southern Dallas landowner, says, "He was right there fighting for Hutchins, for what was fair for the people of Hutchins.
"I just feel like they came at him. That's a part of the way they do things. They go at you. He was just the little guy in the big league."
Of all the people I spoke with, however, the one who did not go along with the Inland Port conspiracy theory as an explanation of the charges against Johnson was Johnson himself. He told me his struggles with Commissioner Price fell well within the bounds of normal politics, and he spoke in defense of Price's overall history. "I think he's done a lot more good than harm," Johnson said.
Instead, Johnson sees the entire story of the scrap-selling charges, including his own indictment, as the work of an inexperienced investigator, McElligott, whom Johnson thinks lacked common sense — a kind of Inspector Clouseau who couldn't tell a crook from a canary. McElligott, who came to Hutchins from the Plano Police Department to accept what he says is a better paying job, strongly disagrees with that characterization of his work.
The truth may lie somewhere between the two extremes. A source who was aware of the investigation but would speak to me only on a not-for-attribution basis said McElligott probably did a great job showing that employees were selling stuff from the city's scrap heap but a poor job finding out if it was against the law to sell things the city had more or less declared as refuse. It probably wasn't.
For his part, Johnson is confident that he broke no rule or law by writing that one check, that he stole not one nickel and that he left Hutchins City Hall stronger than he found it.
Johnson also doesn't see himself as having been defeated in the Inland Port battles. Most of the industrial development he was eventually able to bring to Hutchins was related to the Inland Port project. On other scores, he feels he came out at least even.
For example, one half of Hutchins was cut off from the other for almost two years while Price and his allies at the North Central Texas Council of Governments held up construction on a major bridge project at Wintergreen Road. The stalled bridge project meant that fire trucks couldn't get from the town's only fire station to the other side of town.
Unable to move the officials above him to resolve the problem, Johnson fixed it by building a second fire station on the other side of the bridge. "I built a new fire station," he says proudly, "without debt."
For Johnson, the insult of the indictment goes to two reputations, one his personal reputation as a man and the second his record as mayor. He ticks off a list of major industrial taxpayers he brought to his small community of barely 3,000 full-time residents, as well as construction of a subdivision of 140 homes in a town that hadn't seen a new house built in decades. Johnson fears those accomplishments will be lost in the larger memory of the indictment.
"I took on a town that was pretty much broke back in 2002 when I became mayor," he says. "I wouldn't have run if I had known that we had that little reserve. We had maybe 15 days of reserve, so if we had disaster or anything, we probably wouldn't have made it.
"When I left back in May, we had it up to five or six months. Very few towns have five or six months of reserve. We brought it into a healthy financial condition."
It pains him that those public accomplishments may be forgotten, but the larger wound, he says, is to his personal and private reputation. That was what brought him to his lowest point. He points downward to the carpeted floor of his darkened living room. "I was on that floor," he says.
I ask him if he means that he considered ending his life. He says no. "But it was really one of the most devastating things that I have ever witnessed in all of my life. You keep asking yourself, 'Why, where did it come from, what is it all about?' All of this. I just really can't describe it. It took me down onto the floor.
"It's something that I hope would never have to happen to anybody. It's something you really can't explain."
He says he has never been charged with anything more than a traffic ticket in his 64 years. But at some point in the many months when he was under indictment, Johnson had a realization that doesn't occur to people who have never been in trouble. Talking with lawyers, the questions they asked, the things they told him to be prepared for, all of it provided a window on a world he knew little about. He was headed to the courthouse at some point. Johnson began to see the courthouse as a place where lawyers would play a game of chess in which he would be their pawn.
"Number one, what gets you so much," he says, "I knew I hadn't done anything. But when you get into the legal system, you realize that everybody who goes to jail is not guilty. It's who can put their case on best."
Just being that vulnerable was a source of gnawing unease. "You feel violated," he says. "Even though you try to keep on living your life the way you have been all the time, I can tell you it visits you every day."
Because he was a public official caught up in a larger drama — the news story of the Inland Port — his indictment was painfully high-profile. "Even though you know you're not guilty, it stains you for something like that to come out," he says, shaking his head. "People looking at the TV."
I came back a second day, and we talked again. This time, when my line of questioning was less a surprise, Johnson wanted to talk more about what went right rather than only what went wrong.
"I was just so blessed," he said. "I would say that I had a real strong group of friends. Every time I would get a call or talk to one of them, they would always tell me that, 'We know you didn't do nothing, and we stand behind you. We hate it's happening to you.'"
I have to believe that the emotional experience of being publicly and formally accused of a crime is different, depending on whether you think you're innocent or not. I have already said I never thought Johnson was guilty of anything, but I think I also said that was a two-bit opinion.
McElligott, the former police chief who carried out the investigation, makes a fair point. He's only the first step. If he sees an offense, he needs to put it into the case and allow the district attorney and the grand jury to decide on the next steps. Here they decided two things, first to indict, later to drop the case.
I am convinced of this beyond a doubt, however: Artis Johnson believes that he is utterly innocent of any crime. It's not an act. So, feeling that way, believing you are innocent, what is it like to stand accused?
"It's akin to a death in the family," he tells me. "You know what I'm saying? Your mother or something like that, your dad passing away. Only thing is, after a short period of time that starts healing. But this case lay open from April to December. It doesn't give you a chance to heal."