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Lesson learned from federal corruption trial: How to gain access to the portals of power at City Hall

Is Mayor Tom Leppert truly a champion of ethics reform?
Mark Graham

Look at the sequence of events:

In early August, Carol Reed, a city council lobbyist and the top political consultant to Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, is mentioned in the ongoing Dallas City Hall corruption trial because she advised a client to keep giving private business contracts to a city council member from whom the client was seeking a zoning approval.

On August 24, city council member Angela Hunt persuades four other council colleagues to send a letter to the city attorney asking him to research lobbyist registration laws in other cities.

On August 25, Leppert issues a manifesto saying lobbyist reform was his idea all along.

You can't fault the man for chutzpah.

The reason for concern about lobbying and consulting at City Hall right now has everything to do with Leppert's way of operating. The idea of Leppert as the champion of reform goes down hard.

Carol Reed is one of two paid political operatives for Leppert who shows up regularly at City Hall to lobby the council for votes. For this, the operatives receive hefty fees from clients. Reed has run all of Leppert's campaigns, for his election and on the referendum issues he supported.

Another Leppert operative often at City Hall is Mari Woodlief, president of Allyn Partners, whose company also has been involved in his campaigns.

There is a major difference between people like Reed and Woodlief showing up at City Hall to lobby on behalf of clients and the work of the regular, long-established lobbyists who handle zoning issues for developers. By regular lobbyists I'm thinking of Mike Coker, Willie Cothrum, Michael Jung, Susan Mead, Jonathan Vinson, Kirk Williams (I'm trying to go in alphabetical order). There are others I don't know, and they probably charge extra for that.

The regular lobbyists are either engineers and planners, like Coker and Cothrum, or lawyers, like Jung, Mead, Vinson and Williams. They tend to work zoning and land-use issues to the exclusion of other work. Some of them have sub-specialties within that realm.

Cothrum represents only developers, not neighborhood groups. Mike Jung tends to show up on the side of neighborhood organizations, although I have seen him on the other side of the street a few times. Vinson and Williams are really good lawyers. Mead, I think, can preach the world round or preach it flat. In fact, I think she could preach me flat.

If you wonder why someone would need professional help dealing with the city on a complex issue, then you haven't tried to deal with the city on a simple issue. Try calling down there. You have to hope you don't need anything more complicated than, "Hey, my house is kinda on fire, could you send out a truck?"

The traditional consultants twist some arms. I'm almost always on the other side. But this is a free country, and the political work they do is honest work built on a foundation of technical and legal expertise.

Reed and Woodlief are well-paid campaign consultants. Reed's talents include being the premier political fund-raiser in the city, with direct lines into many of the deep pockets in the Dallas business community. Woodlief is president of Allyn Media, mainly a political advertising and campaign consulting agency. So why would people who are not running for office hire them?

Carol Reed and Mari Woodlief are close to the mayor. If I could design their business cards, the cards would read, "Carol Reed" or "Mari Woodlief" and then, "Close to Mayor." I might add to Reed's "...and the money."

To be sure, they both deny that's the commodity they sell. I asked Woodlief two weeks ago if her proximity to the mayor through involvement in his campaigns might not create an ethical conflict for her when she asks individual council members for their votes on other clients' issues.

"What do you mean by conflict?" she asked.

"I mean that you have more of a shadow, more influence and leverage over council members," I said, "because when you go to them they will see you as proxy for the mayor."

"I don't think that's true at all," she said. "We don't work for the mayor on an ongoing basis. Our business relationship with him ended when the campaign ended."

But everybody knows it starts up again when the next campaign season comes around.

Reed also insisted that she is open about her role as a lobbyist and that her relationship with the mayor has nothing to do with it.

"Anybody knows that when I come down there, I'm getting paid," she said.

I said, "But is there not a special case, the Carol Reed case, because of your relationship with the mayor...because you have been instrumental in the mayor's political success," I went on and on, "does that give you a little bit of a conflict in going to council members to lobby them for their votes?"

 

"No," Reed said. "Not any more than it would if I worked on the governor's race and I was lobbying in Austin. That's what I do for a living."

Well, Austin. What an ethical goal to shoot for.

As our own Patrick Williams pointed out in last week's Buzz, the opening fee to retain Reed's company four years ago, according to documents produced in the federal trial, was a non-refundable retainer of $10,000.

That's just for starters. In the deal described in the trial, Reed got another $100,000 if she won favorable city council votes on three of affordable housing developer Bill Fisher's projects. Fisher eventually became the lead government witness in the ongoing federal corruption trial.

So ask yourself this: Pretend you're Fisher. You've got a deal coming up at council. If it gets voted down, you're out a hellacious amount of money, and right now the vote looks iffy.

I should mention that he also hired Susan Mead and Suzan Kedron, both lawyers, to represent him. So he already had a big-gun law firm representing him on the legal and technical stuff.

If you were Fisher, why would you pay another $10,000 just to sit down and talk to Carol Reed? What does she bring that's worth $100,000 if the deal goes through?

The deal goes through. That's what she brings.

Part of the way Reed got this deal through was by advising Fisher to keep awarding former city council member, the late James Fantroy, contracts for his private security guard business. The city attorney said it was OK. The FBI disagreed, which is how the current corruption scandal got started. No one has accused Reed of breaking the law.

That was four years ago. You can be sure that when Reed is at City Hall now making sure a deal goes through, every single city council member Reed talks to knows exactly who she is, exactly what her relationship is with the mayor and exactly what happens to the campaign spigot of the Citizens Council, a private Dallas business group, if Reed leaves your office pissed off.

Let's take a look at the other side of this coin: how Mayor Leppert and his cadre behave when someone crosses them. The case I am thinking of, of course, is District 14 council member Angela Hunt.

Since her first election to the council in 2005, Hunt has been one of its most productive members—organizing Dallas' first citywide graffiti cleanup with 700 volunteers, instrumental in the creation of the neighborhood stabilization (McMansion control) ordinance, creator of the Arts District Strategic Planning Council, a pioneering champion of trolley systems for downtown.

She has been recognized nationally for her work as a bright, young public servant: In 2008 she was one of 53 "emerging American leaders" granted the prestigious Marshall Memorial Fellowship award for which she spent three weeks in Europe consulting with elected leaders, planners and urban thinkers.

But Hunt also has been a persistent critic of the Trinity River Project championed by the mayor, and she led an unsuccessful referendum against it. If you look back at her criticisms of the project since 2007, it's uncanny how many have turned out to be true.

The project is enormously over budget, as she said it would be. It's an engineering nightmare, as she said it would be. The flood control system is a dangerous mess, as she said it would be. The solutions she suggested—mainly moving a planned toll road outside the flood control system—look better every day.

You'd think the mayor might scratch his head one day, push back his rolling office chair and say to himself, "Maybe I should talk to Angela."

But it's just the opposite. In July when Leppert announced his city council committee appointments, he named two freshman council members as committee officers, but Hunt, who has just begun her third council term, was shut out of every appointment.

It's good to be close to the mayor and his backers. It costs a lot to cross them.

In this same picture, I have to include the unseemly involvement of Leppert's political team in public works contract awards, including the shady dealings of the late Lynn Flint Shaw, chair of the mayor's political fund-raising committee, who died in a murder-suicide with her husband, Rufus Shaw, in 2008 while under investigation by the Dallas County District Attorney.

The real tragedy of the federal corruption trial, no matter what verdict it produces, is that the behavior of the defendants has sullied and squandered the promise of the single-member district city council system. Signs are already there that Leppert will lead a push to dilute the power of council and plan commission members, using the trial as justification.

 

But I would argue the trial has exposed abuses just as bad in the mayor's modus operandi. What we need is some balance that won't concentrate this much money and power at either end of the table—his or the council members.

But is Tom Leppert the Angel of Ethics floating above that table? I don't think so.


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