I finally found Mary Suhm, and guess where. In a videotaped deposition. The former Dallas city manager sat down in front of recording equipment for five hours early last December and answered challenging questions in a lawsuit against the city brought by Trinity East Energy, LLC, an oil and gas drilling company. Her mood in the grueling deposition ranged from drily humorous to angry, from bored to combative, from charming to arrogant, providing in all a broad and intimate view of the city’s elusive former chief executive. But one thing stood out: Mary Suhm says in the deposition that she was “hung out to dry” in the Trinity East drilling rights controversy. It’s a remark she makes with obvious bitterness and pain.
You won’t remember this. A year and a half ago I made an excellent Sundance-quality video
about my fruitless safari through nooks, crannies and basement byways at Dallas City Hall, hunting for Suhm, who was rumored to be lurking in there somewhere. Even though Suhm had retired a year before I began my hunt, reliable persons were reporting to me that she continued to be sighted in the byways, sometimes behind the desk in her old office, sometimes only as a shadow flying across a distant wall. Wherever she really was physically, she clearly continued to wield considerable influence in the affairs of the city, which I thought made her fair game for my photo safari.
But I never found her. I never bagged the big game. Now I have.
I emailed her this week, and she called me back. I asked her how far the “hung out to dry” remark extended. Was it the real reason she left City Hall?
Suhm said she wouldn’t discuss her deposition in detail because it is a matter of ongoing litigation. But in answer to my question about the Trinity East matter being the real reason she left City Hall, she said, “No.”
The deal is this. Eight years ago when City Hall was broke, the city took a check for $19 million from Trinity East as earnest money for the right to drill for gas on city-owned land. Before Trinity East would write the check, Trinity East wrote a letter of agreement
— which Suhm signed — saying Suhm would use her best efforts to get them the permits they would need to drill. That agreement included the right to drill on park land, even though the park board and City Council instructed Suhm there would be no drilling on park land and she had agreed.
But five years later when the Trinity East permits finally came up for a vote, the City Council shot them down
. By then Suhm was gone or supposed to be gone from City Hall. The city’s line was that Suhm only said she’d try. She never guaranteed success.
Now Trinity East is suing, saying they didn’t write a check for $19 million for a college try. They say they wrote that check because Suhm, the city’s CEO, had led them to believe she could get them value for their money, not a slap in the face and a kick in the ass.
The question in the deposition, then, was what Suhm meant and what level of promise she intended to convey in that letter of agreement. Her response to me on the phone this week, by the way, was considerably more open and candid than what she gave Arthur J. Anderson and Christopher A. Brown, the lawyers from Winstead PC who represented Trinity East and asked questions at the deposition.
In her responses to their questions, I counted 49 times Suhm used the phrase “don’t recall,” nine times for “can’t recall,” five for “don’t remember,” one for “can’t remember,” eight for “not sure,” one for “can’t swear” and 22 for “can’t tell you.” I think that adds up to 95 verbal middle fingers.
Maybe she was taking her cue from Peter B. Haskel, the assistant city attorney who represented her at the deposition. Haskel raised 200 objections “to form” during the deposition, meaning he thought the Trinity East lawyers’ questions were vague or misleading or had already been answered or there was something else wrong with them. He rarely explained what his objection was specifically, simply mumbling, “Objection, form.” He popped up so often and so randomly, in fact, sort of like the dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, that on at least one occasion he objected to the form of his own client’s answer.
No matter. The party went on — lawyers asking questions and Suhm saying she couldn’t remember — as if Haskel weren’t even at the table.
There is no question Suhm signed an agreement. Hints of its existence surfaced in 2012 after the Observer published a Q&A
with Steve Fort, a spokesman for Trinity East, in which Fort bragged of having a deal with city staff to allow drilling in parks: “It was made very clear that adding that as a permitted use would not be an issue,” Fort told the Observer
. “In fact, as late as a year ago, when we were dealing with the staff, they were prepared to put that forward to the City Council and add that as a permitted use.
“So we've relied on that … Yes, and we were told that the staff would make that initiation to make that code change, and it was not a big deal. That's what we were told.”
We asked Fort at the time who gave him that assurance. He said, “Who was it? I'm not gonna name names because I'd rather not do that.”
But two smart lawyers on the council at the time, Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs, read that story and thought they sniffed paper; that is, Fort was talking like he had some kind of a signed deal on paper. So Hunt and Griggs began peppering the city attorney with demands for any such agreement.
Eventually the city attorney had to cough up the letter. Hunt and Griggs gave it to me. I wrote a story about it, offering the letter as an example of my own brilliant reporting
Suhm officially resigned from office four months later, but ... well, you already know that part, the nooks and crannies, the flitting shadows. Three months after that Mayor Mike Rawlings tried but failed to get the two-thirds majority on the council he needed for an approval of the Trinity East permits. Trinity East was left holding the bag on a $19 million check and an agreement not worth the paper it was written on.
In the deposition, Suhm insists she guaranteed Trinity East nothing. They paid the city $19 million, she says, knowing that they could not drill unless the council granted them a “special use permit,” called an “SUP” in City Hall parlance. She promised to help them get the permit, but she did not guarantee their success.
“I think what you're saying,” the Trinity East lawyer said, “is our client, for his $19 million, had the opportunity to apply for an SUP.”
After some fencing over semantics, Suhm answers, “You and I would say that differently.”
I looked up how much it costs
to apply for an SUP. It’s about $1,700. It seems to me like Trinity East might be in for a refund of about $18,998,300 on that permit application, which I guess is what this lawsuit is about, though they want a lot more than that.
I also have watched City Hall long enough to know this much: During 95 percent of Suhm’s City Hall career, which began in 1978, any city manager, eventually including herself, would have been able to stick that deal. So what if the park board or the City Council said it didn’t want drilling in parks? Until quite recently, a city manager would have been able to go to the City Council or the park board, say, “Get over it, I got a deal,” and they would all have snapped to attention and voted with smart salutes.
These are new times. The City Council didn’t have a whole lot of Hunts and Griggses on it in the past, smart enough to sniff out the game, tough enough to beat the game and absolutely convinced that officeholders elected by the voters should control issues like these, not bureaucrats. Now we do. An entire new generational wave is taking over City Hall.
Suhm wasn’t tap dancing. That was the political ground shifting beneath her feet. It happens every couple eons.