Mike Rawlings Vowed to Clean Up Dallas, But the Feds Are Spilling Dirt Everywhere
Ever come home from vacation and find spoiled milk in the fridge? When new Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings gets home, he's going to find the whole cow.
It's not just the FBI raids on his campaign supporters. Last week, while Rawlings and his wife vacationed in Paris, Allynmedia, the local political ad agency that ran his campaign, was already meeting with the head of procurement for the City of Dallas. Allynmedia claimed it was a fun lunch to talk about kids and movies. But a city spokesman said the topics were "the term or duration of both the water conservation contract and any electricity contracts with the City of Dallas."
This is exactly what Rawlings promised he would not allow.
During the campaign, Rawlings said he would support a ban on campaign staffers coming back to City Hall to lobby, for themselves or for clients, to land contracts with the city. And since he made that vow, the stakes have gone up considerably. The FBI has been showing up on the doorsteps of his campaign staff, and many of his key supporters have been named in federal documents associated with the probe of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price.
The current investigation is evoking the same themes we heard during the FBI's 2009 Dallas City Hall corruption probe, which sent former Dallas city council member Don Hill and his wife off to prison. It's all about trading political influence for lucrative public contracts.
With that 2009 case in mind, I asked Rawlings during his campaign about influence peddling at City Hall. I wanted to know whether he would support a ban on campaign consultants coming back to City Hall after elections to get contracts for themselves or other people, in effect trading on their new-found cachet.
"Yes, I would," he said without a moment's pause. "We have got a long way to go to restore the confidence of the voters and trust in our city government."
David Kunkle, his opponent, suggested it might be hard for Rawlings to stick to his vow. Mari Woodlief, Rawlings' campaign boss, is a major lobbyist at City Hall. Willis Johnson, a radio personality and key Rawlings consultant, holds subcontracts and contracts with public entities all over the region.
"I don't care," Rawlings said. "I really don't. The rules need to be tight and hard. This isn't about being nice to people."
Since then, FBI agents have made themselves comfortable in the homes and offices of several people associated with Rawlings and his campaign. They searched the home and office of Price, whose aggressive political support was crucial to Rawlings' victory. They did the same favor for Kathy Nealy, a key Rawlings campaign consultant. Federal documents show the FBI is looking for information about Demetris Sampson, a prominent lawyer and Rawlings campaign supporter with huge county contracts, and Royce West, a state Senator who was an important and early Rawlings supporter credited by some with convincing him to run. And then there's Willis Johnson.
Johnson is a good example of how campaign operatives convert political capital into cash. A radio personality a few short years ago, Johnson now has lucrative technology and construction contracts with almost every significant branch of local government.
In 2008, after the election of former Mayor Tom Leppert, I published emails in which the chair of Leppert's fundraising committee schooled him on how to treat Willis Johnson from there on out.
"Willis is the guy," she wrote. "He is the 'go to' person in all things southern sector and African-American. NO ONE AND I MEAN NO ONE should be going around and usurping his authority."
Since then, nobody has.
What's surprising about the recent FBI raids is that unlike prior federal corruption probes in Dallas, this one seems to look both south, toward the black side of town, and north, toward the white side. One search warrant went to Hillwood Development, owned by the quite wealthy and quite white Perot family. The FBI also visited Allynmedia, of which Woodlief is president.
The Rawlings campaign got important support from kingmakers on both sides of the racial equation. He ran a traditional white-business-establishment campaign, but for the last 15 years, such a strategy has included a hand-in-glove partnership between the business establishment and black leaders associated with Price.
It's all about public works projects, contracts and sub-contracts, and it's the way of the world in Dallas. As Southern Dallas pastor Freddie Haynes put it at an anti-FBI prayer vigil last week: "It's one thing to have civil rights. It's another thing to have your silver rights" — money.
The pattern of FBI search warrants and house calls in Dallas suggests investigators are looking into the Inland Port saga — one of the more notable silver-rights moments in recent history. In that situation, now almost four years old, Price politically sabotaged a jobs-rich, environmentally safe development in his own district after the developer refused to hand over $1.5 million and a 15-percent interest in his company to Price's friends.
Rawlings was still making CEO money when that deal went south. But some of the people who were involved in the Inland Port silver rights situation later became key Rawlings campaign supporters, notably Price, Nealy and Johnson. On the very day Rawlings was inaugurated as mayor, the FBI sent him a tough wake-up call by raiding Price's home and office and Nealy's home and office.
The other half of the Inland Port silver-rights puzzle has always been on the white side of town: the Perot family, which owns the Hillwood Development and the Alliance shipping center in Fort Worth, a direct competitor with the Inland Port project.
In 2008, while Price, a close ally of the Perots, was throwing monkey wrenches in the gears of the Inland Port, so was Leppert. He supported an effort in Austin to set up a whole new level of government control over the Inland Port — a burden the Perots didn't have to worry about at their own place of business.
So here you had Leppert, the rich, white businessman mayor of Dallas, put in place by the powerful private Dallas Citizens Council, working hand-in-glove with Price to hobble the biggest industrial development opportunity in the history of the city — and doing it to the advantage of the Perot family, with which both Leppert and Price were closely allied. This is exactly the same machinery that now has cranked out the next shiny new-penny mayor of Dallas, Rawlings.
After the FBI's recent visit to Perot headquarters, they also visited the offices of Rawlings' campaign in the headquarters of Allynmedia. I asked if the men in black had used any words like "person of interest" or presented her with a subpoena.
"No," she said, laughing. "They were very, very quick to put me at ease. Like I said, it was a very short conversation. They said, 'Thank you, have a nice day.'"
I had other conversations and email exchanges with Woodlief last week, to determine what her activities have been with city staff since Rawlings was elected. A source, someone who's been reliable in the past, had told me that Woodlief was already calling on the city's procurement staff — the people who decide how to spend the city's $1.5 billion budget every year, and which contractors will get a slice — as the triumphant manager of the new mayor's campaign.
In the past, both Woodlief and Johnson have frequently visited with city council members and top department officials to speak for clients seeking city contracts, often in areas supposedly subject to strict competitive bidding requirements. Allynmedia, for example, visits a lot with city officials to represent T. Boone Pickens' Mesa Water Inc., a company that has expressed interest in getting the city to build new reservoirs, and which at one point seemed interested in taking over the Trinity River as its own private pipeline.
Willis Johnson has dropped by City Hall many times, too, to chat with former mayor Leppert and other officials on behalf of H.J. Russell, the Atlanta construction company chosen as a major contractor for the city's new convention hotel. H.J. Russell also is helping build the new $1.3 billion Parkland Hospital acute care campus.
I was curious whether the practice of campaign consultants lobbying at City Hall was already underway again, so soon after Rawlings' election. Woodlief told me her staff had met with the city's procurement staff but that the visit, like that chat with the FBI, was mostly social.
"It was not a formal meeting," Woodlief said in an email. "It was a casual lunch, but a procurement staff person was present. Most of the conversation was about kids, summer vacation plans and movies."
But Frank Librio, spokesman for the city, provided a quite different account. First of all, the "procurement staff person" at lunch that day was actually Mike Frosch, head of the procurement department. Librio said the Allynmedia person at the lunch "was interested in the term or duration of both the water conservation contract and any electricity contracts with the City of Dallas."
Kids and movies?
Woodlief told me that Allynmedia does not have any clients even interested in procurement at City Hall at this time. But in the real world, people don't chatter about the term and duration of water conservation and electrical contracts as a form of small talk. It's reasonable to assume somebody in this picture contemplates doing some bid'ness at some point.
If and when that happens, any bidder for water conservation or electrical contracts who is not represented at City Hall by Allynmedia will not be represented by the people who just got the mayor elected, people who happen to have already met with the head of procurement on the topic at hand.
This sounds exactly like what Rawlings said he would ban.
There have been some efforts in federal law to limit the lobbying activities of recent campaign personnel. The argument against those limits is usually based on the lobbyists' rights as citizens — yes, lobbyists are people, too — to petition their elected officials.
But let's not horse around. This isn't about laws and ordinances so much as it is about nudge-nudge, wink-wink. It's a smoothly running machine based on schmooze. It's dirty. And that's part of the reason the FBI is all over the place, again.
If Rawlings is serious about keeping this kind of dirt off his own skirts, he will have to take a powerful broom to it the minute he gets home, one way or the other, however he wants to do it.
But it's hard to know what he'll do. Leppert was a Citizens Council business mayor too. The dirt never bothered him.
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.