Dallas' daily has been singing an odd refrain lately. Dallas Morning News writers have been insisting that the city shouldn't worry its little head about a retrial of Al Lipscomb now that an appeals court has overturned the former city council member's federal bribery and conspiracy conviction on technical grounds.
Columnist Jacquielynn Floyd, who is the only News writer to state the obvious--that Lipscomb was proven corrupt when an Amarillo jury found him guilty on 65 counts--says a retrial should be avoided. "Mr. Lipscomb has paid the price for his actions," Floyd wrote, "as long as that price includes closing the book on his political career." Floyd's bosses on the editorial page expressed similar views a day earlier, writing, "It's hard to see the good gained from pursuing an aging, ailing man." They suggested instead that U.S. Attorney Jane Boyle reach a plea agreement with the 77-year-old former civil rights leader, and that his attorneys should accept lest there be "further damage to their client's reputation." Same sentiment from James Ragland, who thinks noise from Lipscomb loyalists is reason enough to let things drop. "I simply don't want to see another racially charged trial that gets the whole town worked up. That's it--period," he writes.
Journalists of a more curious bent, elected officials, would-be witnesses and others who have followed the details of the whole sordid matter wonder why the News is in such a hurry to put the Lipscomb story to bed when there's so much left to learn.
At present, there are two major questions that the federal government's corruption investigation has left unanswered. And they have nothing to do with the well-established fact that Lipscomb accepted $1,000 a month from Floyd Richards, the white owner of Yellow Cab in Dallas, in return for reversing his position on council votes concerning the cab business.
The first question, which is as relevant as today's news, is, "Why did so many wealthy, white Dallas business leaders stuff Lipscomb's pockets with money?" It's not a history question, because there is evidence the largesse is still going on.
During Lipscomb's trial in Amarillo, supermarket owner Liz Minyard, a former head of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, testified that her family gave Lipscomb money over the years but did not expect anything in return. Schepps Dairy President Pete Schenkel, a former chairman of the Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport Board, testified that he also plied the councilman with cash. He, too, says he neither asked for nor received anything in return.
Mayor Laura Miller, a former journalist whose groundbreaking report on Lipscomb for the Dallas Observer in 1996 sparked the feds' wide-ranging probe, uncovered these patterns of payments to Lipscomb, which today are too old and beyond the statute of limitations to be charged as crimes. The vehicle was Lipscomb's now-bankrupt chemical supply company, Lipscomb Industries, and the check-writers included Minyard, Texas Utilities, Lone Star Gas, The Dallas Morning News and Schenkel, who helped Lipscomb's business in various ways. In early 1995, Miller reported, the News paid $23,664 to Lipscomb's three-man company. Within months, Lipscomb cast three votes highly beneficial to business at the News. He voted to give the newspaper a $4.5 million tax abatement, to renew its $673,000 annual contract to publish official notices and to give the paper a cut rate to place news racks on city rights of way.
The federal probe instead landed on the more direct, quid pro quo, $1,000-in-an-envelope payments that Richards testified he delivered to Lipscomb, along with a $20,500 "loan" to a business owned by Lipscomb's daughter, free cell phone service and cab rides worth about $3,300.
In early 2000, after Lipscomb was convicted, resigned his seat and was hospitalized for pneumonia, U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall sentenced him to 41 months of confinement in his South Oak Cliff home. It is there, during the confinement, that yet another payment to Lipscomb appears to have taken place.
Kendall, who is now in private practice, says Lipscomb's probation officer brought to his attention the fact that Lipscomb--jobless and under federal confinement--and his wife, Lovie, were doing some major improvements and adding a room to their house.
Where, the officer and the judge wanted to know, was the money coming from?
Kendall says he learned the repairs were financed with a bank loan to Lipscomb's wife. "It was obviously a concern," Kendall says. "But because it was made to Lovie, we had no authority to look behind that."
Lipscomb, however, has told people that his friend Schenkel had a hand in the loan and was instrumental in getting him the funds. Neither Schenkel nor Lipscomb returned phone calls for this story.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with helping out an old friend. Schenkel, Minyard and former City Manager Richard Knight, all of whom testified they gave Lipscomb money when he was in office, have reportedly made Lipscomb job offers since he won his appeal. Amid a harsh economic downturn, 77-year-olds with miserable business backgrounds are apparently in high demand.
"You are asking the right questions," Kendall says. "It's been my experience in life that people don't hand out money or jobs without the expectation that they'll get something in return."
There is a second pending question as well.
Cindy Schoelen, former secretary to Dallas Police Chief Terrell Bolton, says she is waiting for the feds to release material from the Lipscomb probe that will prove she is not a liar. "This is something that still hasn't been addressed," says Schoelen, who was on the prosecution witness list in the Lipscomb trial and on standby to go to Amarillo.
Schoelen and Dallas Police Lieutenant John Sullivan say they testified to a grand jury that Bolton ordered Sullivan to a meeting in 1993 with Lipscomb and Nick Rizos, owner of the Caligula XXI topless club. The purpose was to discuss what Rizos considered "police harassment" of the club, which he wanted stopped.
Rizos, the feds allege, paid Lipscomb four "bribes and gratuities" totaling $7,700 for attending to his problem.
Bolton has repeatedly denied that he ordered Sullivan to the meeting or ordered a decrease in police surveillance at the club. Instead, he has suggested that Robert Jackson, an executive assistant chief who Bolton demoted when he became police chief, ordered the enforcement to cease. Jackson, who is now police chief in Killeen, has said he did not order Sullivan to the meeting, and he told that to the FBI.
Schoelen says her testimony in the matter has cost her her life savings. Bolton fired Schoelen from her post at the police pound after she was accused of taking about $15 worth of abandoned strawberries. She was later reinstated and works now as a supervisor in the police property room.
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The firing forced her to cash in more than $20,000 in retirement savings so she could pay her bills.
It is clear in hindsight that with the more powerful Richards bribery testimony, former U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins and lead prosecutor Mike Uhl saw no need to pursue the Rizos affair.
But if Boyle decides not to retry Lipscomb, or lets him off on a plea without a long list of admissions about payments, or denies reporters access to the case files when it's all done, there are important things Dallas will never know.
Stonewalling, flat denials and head-in-sand editorials will have won out. Or as Schoelen says, "It's easier to just turn your head and forget about it."