Latest Lesson from the City Hall Corruption Trial: When You Ask the City Attorney for an Ethics Opinion, Check With the FBI Too
There's a point I want to make about the Dallas City Hall corruption/bribery trial going on now in federal court. It's simple.
The trial probably seems impossibly complicated—14 defendants, lots of lingo, events scattered over several years. But look. It's not, not if you put yourself in the position.
Let's make something up. Pretend you need something from the city. Let's say you want to build a garage with a little upstairs mother-in-law apartment behind your house, but it's going to take a zoning change. You're headed downtown right now to appear before the city council to plead your case.
Last week, someone suggested you call Carol Reed and Associates, the public relations and political consulting firm that handled the election campaign of Mayor Tom Leppert. They may have some advice.
Indeed, they do. They tell you it would be perfectly legal and quite advisable for you to hire a certain security firm to guard your house. This firm happens to be owned by the sitting city council member who has direct influence over your little problem.
Not to worry about prison. They assure you this sort of arrangement has been thoroughly vetted by the Dallas city attorney. The city attorney has ruled it's copacetic as long as the council member "recuses" himself—doesn't vote—on issues that pertain to you personally.
Hmm? How's he gonna help if he can't vote? This has all been worked out, wouldn't you know.
Your issue will go the right way, because just before he recuses himself and leaves the room, your council member will have another council member tell the council how to vote. Then when the vote comes up, your member will lean out from around the corner and give them all the evil eye.
Look. You want your mother-in-law apartment? See that the council member gets some security work. Whaddya say?
Because I have been covering Dallas City Hall for about 100 years, I know that everything will happen just as they promise. I have seen things done this way at Dallas City Hall, down to and including the old reach-around evil eye "recusal."
But because I have been covering this trial, I know what you should say when they tell you it's been vetted by the city attorney. You need to say, "Yeah, but has it been vetted by the FBI?"
Because guess what? Deals that look "perfectly legal" to the Dallas city attorney can look like criminal offenses to the feds, and if you get caught between those rocks you could wind up downtown in the dock, trying to ward off a long stretch in the pen like the defendants in the current case.
In fact, you know what? I'd take my chances just not doing the security guard thing at all. Move your mother-in-law into the house with you. She's probably a lot easier to live with than your potential roommate in the Big House.
Think about it.
But people don't. This very situation occurred six years ago at City Hall. At a September 22, 2004, city council meeting, Laura Miller, then in her first term as mayor, leaned over to council member Don Hill and asked him why council member James Fantroy had recused himself and left the room on a zoning vote (after having another member tell everybody how to vote and then hovering in the wings to make sure things went his way).
Miller testified in court last week: "I said, 'What is the conflict of interest?' He [Hill] said, 'If this developer's project is approved today, Mr. Fantroy will get the security contract at his complex.'"
In court, Miller gave a description of her own subsequent behavior that was so understated I laughed out loud. (I was not in the courtroom.)
"I was surprised by that information," she told the court, "and I wanted to confirm it with the developer, so I got out of my chair, and I walked around to the podium where he was making his presentation."
Kathy Nealy, a political consultant who was in on the security contract, gave a much more colorful description in her testimony, describing Miller as charging out into the room and creating a huge "ruckus."
In fact, this was vintage Laura Miller—not the calculated politician she became later in her tenure but a green and fiery Carrie Nation, so angered and disgusted by what she had just heard that she was probably ready to punch somebody's lights out.
Miller stalked right up to the real estate developer, James R. ("Bill") Fisher, who was standing at the podium making his case for the zoning change. She asked if what Don Hill had just told her was true.
Fisher said it was. We know from other testimony in the trial that Fisher was not at all happy about being squeezed, but, fearing he would lose his business if he didn't give in, promised to dish some work to Fantroy in exchange for the council member's support.
Fantroy's support was crucial, because Fisher's project was in Fantroy's council district. Council members by informal mutual agreement are the sole deciders of zoning cases in their own districts. Fantroy had absolute thumbs-up, thumbs-down power over Fisher, and he wasn't giving it away for free.
Fantroy died in October of last year of kidney cancer at age 71. In February 2008, Fantroy was convicted of stealing $20,000 from Paul Quinn College, the city's only historically black college, now battling a loss of academic accreditation based on a lack of adequate funding.
The jury learned from other testimony last week that contractors who resisted giving security work to Fantroy's firm, J.L. Security and Investigations, didn't get projects approved in his district. Nealy testified that Fantroy once asked her clients to leave a meeting and then, when he was alone with her, told Nealy her clients needed to come across with some security work for him.
Fisher is now one of the government's most important witnesses. The FBI caught wind of the security guard shenanigans, probably because Miller had managed to put it all over TV and the newspapers. Some time later, Fisher agreed to start wearing a hidden transmitter to gather evidence for the FBI.
That day five years ago when Miller raised a ruckus, the council was unwilling to discuss its own ethics rules in public. It went behind closed doors to talk about it in a so-called "executive session."
Executive sessions are secret. They are allowed by law for certain specific purposes, including circumstances where the council needs to receive information protected by attorney-client privilege. That's the most commonly abused justification. I'm not sure why the council couldn't have discussed its own ethics laws in public, without going behind the curtain.
Well, I say I'm uncertain. But I'm not. The main reason was probably to try to shut Miller up—never, ever, ever a good idea.
I heard about this meeting at the time from an off-the-record source I cannot name. Last week, federal Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn of the Northern District of Texas ruled that Miller could be compelled to talk about the meeting in open court, even though a lawyer from the city of Dallas showed up and tried vigorously and repeatedly to keep the session a secret.
Last week Miller was not allowed to say what the Dallas city attorney had advised the council in the meeting. But subsequent news reports and events themselves made it obvious: The Dallas city attorney advised the council that there was a way Fisher could get his zoning and Fantroy could keep his security contracts.
According to Nealy's testimony, the ultimate arrangement was driven by political considerations as much as legal advice. She told the court that she and Carol Reed met with officials and council members on the issue and helped devise a solution. For decades Reed has been the leading political and campaign consultant for the city's downtown business leaders.
The Solomonic solution was to move Fantroy's security contracts away from the projects in his own district and attach them instead to properties Fisher owned or controlled in other districts or outside the city. That way Fisher could get his zoning; Fantroy could get his juice; and the city attorney at the time, Madeleine Johnson, could give her blessing.
So put yourself there. You agree to hire the councilman's security company to guard your house in exchange for his support for your mother-in-law apartment. The crazy mayor raises a ruckus. Maybe you think, "Oh, good, I didn't like any of this anyway."
But the city attorney says, "You need to hire the councilman's company to guard your uncle's house in Minneapolis."
And now, thanks to this trial, you know what to do when the Dallas city attorney tells you how to handle it. Call the FBI and offer to wear a wire. Fast. In case they've already got one on your mother-in-law.
I called Reed's cell phone and office to ask for comment on these matters and did not receive a call back.
Another thing happened in that executive session, according to Miller's testimony. Councilman Don Hill, who is now the lead defendant in this case, angrily accused Miller of being overly judgmental. Miller testified Hill asked her if it would be unethical for a developer with a zoning case coming up in Hill's district to show up at his church on Sunday and drop $500 in the collection plate.
Miller testified that she told Hill it would depend. The version I heard at the time, from the source I cannot name, included her statement, "You're blank blank right" it would be [unethical].
So, look, here is my simple point. You put yourself inside this whole Alice-in-Wonderland situation. Put yourself in that room, that executive session. Listen to the city attorney's advice. Listen to Don Hill's question about whether five bills in the collection plate would be unethical.
Tell me you wouldn't use the blank blank word.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.